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His Enthusiasm is Contagious

His Enthusiasm is Contagious

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In 1963 Joe Marohnic was teaching in Niagara Falls, Ontario when he and his wife Jennifer decided to get away from the pollution and bureaucracy in southern Ontario. After much searching they decided on a town on the edge of a wilderness park. Joe took advantage of the easy access to wilderness in Atikokan and became an avid canoeist and camper. He found there was a lot to like in Atikokan – the rail yard, clear northern skies, snowshoeing, and a river slowly winding its way through the town. Most importantly, the town was full of a variety of interesting people.

 Many years later Joe wrote an article called “My Students and the Stars” for the Atikokan Progress where he stated that he also discovered what a truly black sky filled with countless stars looked like, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. This discovery was what set a pattern for the rest of my adult life. From here on in everything revolved around telescopes, optics, binoculars, star charts, and making telescopes, which was accompanied by a passion to share with my students my amazement at what I was discovering in the sky. These are the feelings that made me dedicate each cloudless night for one and half decades to sharing the sky with my students. I knew if I got my students up the hill to look at the sky, it would open their minds to possibilities they didn’t know existed. This is what happens when we experience anything profound. Astronomy inspires us to drop our blinders of limitations. Most people have not been encouraged to reach their full potential as human beings and I believe gazing up into the universe reflects to people who they really are and can be, since you absolutely cannot look at Saturn through a telescope and be the same person. You have no choice but to expand, because if Saturn is possible, then anything is possible.”

It wasn’t just students who shared his passion and trudged up the hill to the telescope. Forty years ago my wife Marie and I followed Joe up the hill behind their house in Highland Park to look through his big telescope.  He would point out double stars, distant galaxies, craters on the moon, planets, and other wonders of the universe. We saw the rings of Saturn and, like his students, we also expanded our universe.

Joe taught grade school in Atikokan from 1964 to 1978 and then taught an inventive and highly successful alternate learning program at the Atikokan High School until his retirement in 1990.  Most of his students were disadvantaged kids who caused trouble in class, and teachers were glad to see them go. Joe, on the other hand, calls them “my favourite kind of kid.” A collaboration between Joe and some of the students about their experiences,  good and bad, resulted in the book “All I Can Give You Is Me”.  

Joe learned the craft of photography in Atikokan. He was fortunate in having one of his favorite photography locations – the railroad yard – located right in front of his house.  In addition to his own photography he has also taught photography and darkroom skills to many people in Atikokan. A book that I really love called “An Opinion in Black and White” is the compilation of photos from one class in 2004 at the Intergenerational Arts Centre in town.

Joe has been taking photos for well over sixty years. In the introduction to his latest book he says that “you would think that after all that time a person would know all there is to know about a topic or enterprise and become tired of it, but that isn’t the case.” He then quotes jazz great Miles Davis who said “sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”    

Joe is an 83 year old self-taught photographer who is still learning how to “photograph like himself.” He has had twenty-one solo exhibits in Canada and Europe, been awarded Ontario Arts Council grants and has published four books, including one about Croatia, the country his parents emigrated from and that he has travelled to many times.

Joe now has medical problems and his lack of mobility limits his photography. He even stopped taking photos for a while but missed it so much that his wife Gabrielle convinced him to start again. The photos in his most recent book, ‘Portraits From My Armchair’, was primarily taken in his Thunder Bay living room adjacent to a large window that provides soft, directional light that is ideal for portraits. A few of the portraits were taken outside and for those he substituted his wheelchair for the armchair. 

He asked friends, family, neighbors and people he encountered in his daily activities if they would like to be photographed. For privacy reasons, he doesn’t identify the people in the portraits but he does have a short quotation from a respected photographer to go with each photo. The first one – “It is easy to make a picture of a stranger and call it a portrait. The difficulty lies in making a picture that makes a viewer care about a stranger” – best summarizes the strength of Joe’s photography. To accomplish this, his goal is to make a connection with the person.  He wants the feeling to be like having coffee together but with a camera, rather than doughnuts, between them. Then he has a chance to catch the spirit of the person.

Photography and astronomy give Joe hope and keep him active in body and in spirit. His enthusiasm is contagious. Through his teaching and his example he has helped many others realize that they also have enthusiasms that they should share with others.

                                                                             Jon Nelson

“They Came From All Around” by Harold Alanen

They Came from All Around by Harold AlanenHarold Alanen’s roots run deep into the glacial till of the area south and west of Thunder Bay. His grandparents were part of the influx of Finnish immigrants that arrived here in the early 1900’s. Harold was born in Nolalu, went to school there and later taught at the same school. Harold graduated from Lakehead University and is now a retired teacher/principal. In addition to his educational background, Harold is also an accomplished archaeologist, writer and photographer.

Harold’s interest in the history of the area began early in his life. In 1955, his grade four teacher at Nolalu Public School showed the class a stone spear point that a classmate had found in a potato field on the family farm. Harold says that the discussions about the ancient stone tool “kindled an interest” in finding out more about the history of where he lived. This interest continues to this day and has resulted in a detailed look at its history.

Native People followed the retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age and entered the region about ten thousand years ago. Archaeologists believe that the earliest artifacts that have been recovered southwest of Thunder Bay- many of them found by the writer of the book – are found on the ancient shorelines of glacial lakes that are now a long distance from water. He documents old Native Canadian trails, including a still visible trail that leads up from the border to rich wild rice locations on Whitefish Lake.

Although the book focuses on the history of the 12,000 square mile area from Nolalu to Northern Light Lake, it encompasses much more that. Harold explains how the glacier transformed the landscape and created lakes, rolling hills and areas suitable for farming. He also gives insights into how immigrants slowly altered the landscape and how communities were formed and adapted to the changes that occurred when mining and logging replaced farming.

Although Finns made up a majority of the people in the Nolalu area in its early years, soon immigrants from many countries arrived. This diversity led Harold to use “They Came From All Around” – a lyric from a Gordon Lightfoot song – as the title of his book.

The boom in homesteading accelerated with the passing of the “Free Land and Homestead Act of 1868” The description of the growth of resulting communities includes details on the development of churches, schools, cemeteries and the building of the “Outlaw Bridge’ over the Pigeon River.
There was a boom in silver mining with the opening of the Rabbit Mountain Mine and other silver mines in 1880’s. Harold traces the development of the “Pee Dee” railroad as it grew toward the Paulson Iron Ore mine just over the border in Minnesota. When the proposed mine failed, the railroad was able to stay alive by hauling silver ore in the later stages of the local silver mines, carrying lumber to area sawmills that had opened along the rail line, taking railroad ties to Port Arthur, and transporting supplies to and from the communities along the rail line.

What started out as primarily a history of the Finnish population in the Nolalu area evolved over years of research into a detailed chronicle of the lives of people of numerous nationalities in rural Thunder Bay. This book shows that “they came from all around” and, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot;

time has no beginnings and history has no bounds
as to this verdant country they came from all around
they sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines the mills and the factories for the good of us all
This book describes how this was done in one small part of our verdant country.

Jon Nelson

This book is available directly from Harold Alanen

Contact Harold Alanen

 

Life on the Invisible Line by John Bouchard


I met John on Saganaga Lake in the early 1980’s. He was a Conservation Officer who worked along the border – the invisible line – between Minnesota and Ontario. When visiting John and Eve I noticed the mural depicting life on Saganaga in the entryway to his office/home on the lake. John was also known for the wonderful cartoon-like drawings that he did of friends and that also graced his log book that he kept for his job as a C.O. Although I was aware of his abilities as an artist, I only became aware of his wonderful ability to write stories depicting his adventures when I read this book. John was known for his outgoing nature and sense of humour and these traits come through strongly in his book.

There have been many books written about the Boundary Waters , Quetico Park and the surrounding area but John’s book is unique. The short stories – based on actual events in John’s life as a Conservation Officer – have over 100 of John’s illustration. They add another dimension to the funny, poignant and often bizarre stories. As John says in his ode to Saganaga on the back of his book, his tales are ” stories told truthfully though colours are bold”. I highly recommend this bold book about the colourful characters that John encountered in his decades along the Ontario-Minnesota border.


My article about John Bouchard can be found at http://www.lakesuperior.com/travel/ontario/saganaga-saga-love-affair-with-remote-border-crossing/ The article contains some of John’s wonderful drawings. One example from is book is shown below. Find the book for sale on Amazon.ca

 

From the Pacific to the Atlantic by Canoe

Mike and Spitzii's Great Canadian Adventure 2014

When I first heard that Mike Ranta was planning a solo canoe trip from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean I thought to myself that would be an incredible feat – but that it was impossible. I was proven wrong.

This book, Mike and Spitzii’s Great Canadian Adventure 2014, tells how a man and his dog accomplished this feat. Mike was raised in Atikokan and still lives there; on this trip he was following the example of Atikokan’s Don and Joe Meany. Don paddled on the Ontario team that raced across Canada from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Montreal in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. In that same year, Joe and two buddies followed the same route in a three man kayak. Another Atikokan connection is that Mike and Spitzii were using a Souris River canoe and XY Company paddles and both of these are world class products made in Atikokan by locally owned companies.

Mike and his dog Spitzii began their journey by heading up the Fraser River from Vancouver. Travelling up a major river against the current was just the beginning of his difficulties. The Cascade Mountains were the next major obstacle in what would be a series of obstacles and he was doing this alone save Spitzii. Mike likes to travel by himself and told me that “I have never felt alone in the bush. What I love about solo wilderness travel is that I can then focus on the environment around me. I get to go at my own pace, listen to and make connections with Mother Nature.”

Although he was paddling solo he had his dog with him. As you will discover in the book, it wasn’t just a dog – it was Spitzii the wonder dog. Spitzii does everything a good bow paddler does except paddle. Spitzii scans the water ahead and woofs when he spots a submerged rock, log or any other obstacle in the water. Dogs have much better hearing than humans and he hears rapids and waterfalls well before Mike hears them. Mike said that a couple of times he woofed and looked back at Mike when they were beginning to cross a wide part of a bay to save time on Lake Superior. He evidently heard rumblings in the distance and was warning about an approaching storm that wasn’t yet visible. Mike learned to respect these warnings and immediately look for a place to land the canoe when he got a warning woof from Spitzii. Bear warnings and wildlife spotting are also part of his repertoire.

Mike left Vancouver on April 1, 2014 and paddled up the Fraser River all the way to Hope, British Columbia where he found that creeks heading east into the mountains were still frozen and it was not possible to canoe any further. He had to take to the side of the highway and pulled his canoe and all his supplies on a wheeled cart. He found that the traffic on the highway – especially the trucks – made this the most dangerous part of his trip. He walked for seven days up and over the Cascades. He got back onto the water on the Similkameen River where he had a big scare. He came around a sweeping curve, saw rapids ahead and couldn’t get to shore in time and ended up in the cold, glacial fed water under his over-turned canoe. Fortunately, both he and Spitzii got to shore before being swept down the rapids.

This was just one of many examples of times when Mike found that he should expect the unexpected on a trip of this magnitude. At this point, Mike had crossed the Cascades but now he had to get up and over the Rockies. It was a challenge to travel this diverse and wildlife rich area. One morning he woke up near Revelstoke, British Columbia to six inches of snow and -5 Celsius. At another point he was walking in 2 ½ ft of snow while pulling his canoe behind him. They encountered many bears on their journey, but near Golden, British Columbia they (Spitzii is like a person in this book) saw a cougar print embedded in a bear print. Another memorable sight was a herd of elk crossing the river in front of them in Alberta.

It wasn’t as though paddling solo up a major river and crossing two major mountain ranges while alternately dodging trucks and paddling down icy rivers meant that he had completed a major part of his trip. He was just beginning. Crossing Saskatchewan and Manitoba is where Mike had some of his most memorable, and unusual, encounters. Mike was glad to arrive in Thunder Bay, on schedule, near the end of July. He now faced the challenge of Lake Superior. Of course he had some wind-bound days but near Marathon he surprisingly found the lake “was like glass with only the odd loon and fish rippling the surface.”

Mike was now half way across Canada and many more adventures were yet to come. One of the more unusual occurred in Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. Mike decided to run the La Chine Rapids in Montreal in order to save the time it would take to portage around the locks. He got a call from Joe Meany as he was headed towards the rapids. Mike recalls how he “told him to stay on the line and that we would run the rapids together. It was a great run and by the time I got to the bottom of those rapids I swear that Joe was sweating more than I was. Spitzi was at his best and knew there was no margin for error on this section of the river as he watched for breach rocks and logs. We had a couple of scary moments and we had a good little drop just before we got out of the fast water and Spitz got a little wet on that one. When I finally got to the base of the rapids, Joe and I were both pretty excited and I could hear in his voice that he was glad that he stayed on the line. Joe and I have never been in a canoe together and I always wanted to paddle with him and that day I felt as though I’d accomplished that goal. Joe is a legendary paddler from back home and it was an honour to run those rapids with him. Even though he wasn’t there on a physical level, he was in my heart and in my mind and was the strength behind every stroke that I made in that section of fast water. I will always remember that it was a special moment for me that I will always cherish”

Mike left Vancouver on April 1, 2014 and arrived in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia on October 31. Mike was the first person to cross the North American continent solo by canoe in one canoe season. Mike raised $50,000 for the Atikokan Youth Initiative Centre on this trip. Mike also did a solo trip across Canada in 2016 and raised money for Canadian Veterans. This coming summer he is planning a trip from Bella Coola, British Columbia that will follow Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 route over the Rocky Mountains and on to Montreal. He will then continue on to Nova Scotia. Spitzi will again be in the bow of the canoe and another solo canoeist will accompany him. This trip will be a little bit longer and also more difficult.

His friend Don Meany once told him that “if you can’t go through it, go around it. If you can’t go around it then be damn sure you can go through it.” That attitude is on display in this book and it will be present on any future trip.

Jon Nelson

The book is available at the Finnish Book Store in Thunder Bay and Mike Ranta’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/mikeranta2016/

Return of the XY Company

Spencer and Don Meany

The XY Company was a Canadian fur trade enterprise that was formed in 1797 by a group of men that were disenchanted with Simon McTavish’s leadership of the NorthWest Company. They were in direct and sometimes rabid competition with the NorthWest Company who labeled their packs NW; hence the new group called themselves by the two letters that come after W.

The NorthWest Company, Hudson Bay Company, American Fur Company and the XY Company all had posts and vied for trade in the boundary waters area. In 1802, Alexander Mackenzie gained control of the XY Company and when Simon McTavish died in 1804 the XY Company rejoined the NorthWest Company. Although it had a short life span, the XY Company was a relatively small and innovative company that had a big impact not only on this region but on the fur trade in North America. Currently, in Atikokan, there is a different XY Company. This company is still small and innovative, but it specializes in making canoe paddles.

The paddles, made by the Don and Spencer Meany, are named after great Canadian explorers and voyageurs such as Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, William McGillivary, George Simpson, David Thompson and La Verendrye. They all paddled through Quetico and Don Meany says “it is our way of keeping an aspect of Canadian history alive”. Some remnants of the fur trade are still visible throughout the boundary waters. Where fur trade posts stood, there are now clearings that are slowly but surely reverting to forest. The site of a Hudson Bay post on the Canadian side of Basswood Lake is noticeably more grown over than it was when I first saw it twenty-five years ago and will be hard to find in another twenty-five years. Broken clay pipes and trade beads can still be seen at the ends of portages and on campsites along the voyageur routes.

One of the founders of the XY Company is one of Canada’s most famous explorers. He paddled to both the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. He became the first European to reach the Pacific coast north of Mexico traveling cross-country. When his crew reached the Pacific Ocean, he wrote on a rock in red ochre: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.” Traveling primarily by canoe, he reached the Pacific twelve years earlier than Lewis and Clark.

The early Europeans in North America adapted the canoes and paddles that were used by Native People. According to Kennicott, who traveled with voyageurs in 1849, the most common paddle was made of red cedar and had a blade about two feet long and three inches wide. Adney and Chapelle, in their book The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, stated that “no voyageur in his right mind would use a blade wider than between 4 1/2 and 5 inches wide, for anything wider would exhaust him in a short distance. …..The paddles were of hardwood, white or yellow birch or maple, as hardwood paddles could be made thin in the blade and small in the handle without loss of strength, whereas softwood paddles could not.” Interestingly, divers at Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River recovered a badly eroded paddle from the bottom of the river that had a blade just 5 inches wide. Fort Charlotte, located at the west end of the Grand Portage, was abandoned at the end of voyageur period and the paddle is thought to be from the voyageur period. Paintings of voyageurs from the 1800’s, such as the well-known Canoe Manned by Voyageurs by Frances Hopkins, show long, narrow paddles that fit the descriptions found in journals.

Today’s canoes are obviously not only smaller than the voyageur canoes, they are also designed differently. It wouldn’t make much sense to use a paddle that is a direct copy of a voyageur paddle to propel a contemporary narrow, 2-person canoe. However, the voyageurs preference for a light, durable paddle with a narrow blade, can also be successfully used now. The current XY Company makes a paddle that incorporates the voyageur design but has a recurved blade, a bent handle and is laminated. Two hundred years of evolution have altered the paddle, but not beyond recognition.

Don Meany started making paddles with his brother Joe in 1964 in the basement of the Rockton Hotel in Atikokan. Don began making paddles because he was active in canoe racing and thought he could make paddles that were better for racing than what was available. Both Don and Joe were very active and successful in many canoe races even though they were competing against the likes of Buzz Peterson, Gene Jensen and Ralph Sawyer. Don was a key member of the Ontario team that raced across Canada as part of the Canadian Centennial in 1967. The route, which covered 3,300 miles and took 104 days to cover, was from Rocky Mountain House in Alberta to Montreal in Quebec. It has been called the longest canoe race in history. This race was a way of paying homage on Canada’s one hundredth birthday to the explorers and fur traders who played such a crucial role in the opening up of the country.

The 1960’s were a time of fierce competitions in canoe racing and many radical innovations were made in both canoe and paddle design. The changes made in canoe designs were subsequently adapted for recreational canoes and Gene Jensen, Ralph Sawyer and other racers were leaders in both making changes in racing canoes and bringing these changes to recreational canoes. The vast majority of canoes used today in the Boundary Waters are the result of adaptations that were originally made in order to improve canoe performance for racing.

Major changes were also made in paddle design. These changes in canoes and paddles resulted in a modification of paddling techniques. The bent shaft paddle, the “hut” stroke, and an increase in tempo were all the result of canoe racing. Two major innovations in canoe paddle design originated with Don Meany. He was the first to use the “recurved blade” on a canoe paddle. The blade is curved from side to side in a similar fashion to what is used in kayak paddles. He also experimented with spooned and cupped blades but found that they did not work well.

Don also placed a bend at the top of the shaft so that the wrist is in a more natural position when paddling. That evolved from trying to keep the wrist straight and still have the paddle vertical in the water for as long as possible during each stroke. This is commonly done on bent shaft paddles but the XY Company also makes straight paddles with the bend at the top of the shaft. Almost twenty years ago, I bought a Meany paddle with the handle bent backwards at the top of the shaft. It was, and still is, so comfortable that I have continued to use paddles with this feature that looked so strange when I first saw it.

In the early 1970’s, Don worked in Quetico Park and served as chief of the portage crew. This was prior to the can and bottle ban and portage crews were used to clean campsites as well as maintaining portages. He also participated in a full park survey of campsites in Quetico where the crew working for him were Junior Rangers – young men experiencing the park for the first time. It was Don’s philosophy to teach the crews as much about the park’s historical significance and the role it played in Canadian history as he could. I was told by people who worked with Don during this period that they vividly remember his stories around the campfire. He felt so strongly about emulating the voyageurs that he insisted that the food packs had a good supply of dried beans and jerky so that they could also eat like voyageurs. Don, known for his ability to carry heavy loads on portages, took part in a contest in Atikokan in the mid 1970’s to see who could carry the heaviest load for ninety feet. Don won by carrying 642 pounds.

Don’s son, Spencer, grew up in Atikokan and canoed from an early age. He was an excellent hockey player and went to St. Lawrence University in New York on a hockey scholarship. He was drafted by the Buffalo Sabers in 1991 but decided to continue his college education and obtained a degree. He subsequently played pro hockey from 1994 until he was injured in 1998. He returned to Atikokan with his wife Samantha in 2000. He now works with his father and is a co-owner of XY Company.

Since returning to Atikokan, Spencer has become interested in marathon canoe racing. He has purchased a Hassle racing canoe and is now starting to race. Spencer is also crafting his own style canoe paddles. He has inherited his father’s experimental nature and is currently working on a paddle with a refined design that weighs under one pound. His wife Samantha is an integral part of the company and uses a laser engraver to place designs on paddles.

Meany paddles are now sold all over the world. They have filled orders from Malaysia, Serbia, France, Australia, England and a few African countries. The “Raid the North” adventure race held in Atikokan in June, which had competitors from many countries, was won by a team from France. The prize for one section of the race, which went from the Pines on Pickerel Lake to the beach on French Lake, was won by a team from southern Ontario. The French team was so impressed with the XY paddles that were given as prizes for this section of the race, that they had Don and Spencer make four more of the paddles and had them sent to France.

The Meanys have heard many stories regarding the use of their paddles. Spencer’s favourite is about the young couple that came in to purchase a set of XY paddles because they were passed on French Lake by an elderly couple using XY paddles who hailed them a good morning before rapidly vanishing into the distance. Many canoeists stop at their shop in Atikokan to buy paddles or simply talk about their canoe trip. Once you have stopped and heard the Meanys tell stories from, it is almost impossible to drive by the next time without stopping.

Local historians and archaeologists do their best to make connections to people who lived on the land that is now the boundary waters of Ontario and Minnesota. These written connections to the past are usually not very successful in making the past seem vivid and alive. People who work with wood rather than words, such as the Meanys making paddles and Joe Seliga making canoes, are probably more successful in showing that the past can be materially expressed in a form that is still relevant and works effectively today.

Gary Snyder, in his book Practice of the Wild, quoted a Crow elder. “You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough – even white people – the spirits will begin to speak to them. It is the power of the spirits coming from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them”. As much as anyone I know, Don Meany has been influenced by these spirits and he can effectively make the past seem compelling and alive. When he talks about voyageurs, canoe racing, changes in paddle design, or working in Quetico, the past and the present become effectively melded together. His is an animated oral history that allows you to feel a connection to the people and the traditions of those who came before us.

For more information about the XY Company, please visit their website.

Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park

Introduction

On May 10, 1992, Sheila Hainey decided to go to town during her lunch hour to pick up some bedding plants for her garden. She was an avid gardener and she was concerned that if she waited until after work the plants would be sold out.Sheila worked at Quetico Park’s Nym Lake entry station and it was only fifteen minutes to Atikokan. On her way to town something unexpected happened. For reasons unknown, Sheila lost control of her car and it plowed through many guard railings. Her car hit a rock cut and Sheila was dead when help arrived.

Sheila was only fifty-two years old. Her death was devastating not only to her family but to the entire community as well. Sheila had an outgoing personality, was well known in Atikokan and was active in community affairs. Both Sheila and her husband Tom Hainey were born in Scotland. They met in Thunder Bay, Ontario where they married and they moved to nearby Atikokan when Tom took a job in the iron ore mine outside of town. Tom worked as a mechanic in the Caland Iron Ore Mine until it closed in the late 1970’s and then he opened a small business in Atikokan. They had three daughters -Tammy, Brenda and Debby – and a son Tom.

Tom Hainey decides to swim across Quetico Park

The entire Hainey family had a strong connection to Quetico Park. When the accident occurred, it was the eighteenth year that Sheila had worked in Quetico Park and her husband Tom (known as Tom Sr. after the birth of their son) had also worked at French Lake as well. All the Hainey children learned to swim at the beach at French Lake and had gone on numerous canoe trips in Quetico.

After the tragic death of his mother the previous summer, Tom decided that something should be done to honour his mother and that it should be done in Quetico Park, a place she loved. Every summer, hundreds of people paddle their canoes and kayaks across Quetico Provincial Park. Whether you choose to go from east to west or north to south, it is about eighty kilometres of paddling and portaging to make the traverse. Tom Hainey grew up just a few kilometres north of the park in Atikokan, Ontario, and having taken many canoe trips in Quetico Park, canoeing across the park would have been an easy trip for him. Tom Hainey, however, decided to do something more innovative.

He chose to swim. Tom had been a highly successful competitive swimmer who had won gold medals in both national and international events. Tom decided that using his swimming ability to swim across Quetico would be a challenging and innovative way to honour his mother. In addition to people leisurely paddling across the park, canoeists had raced from Ely, Minnesota across the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) and Quetico Park to Atikokan, Ontario in the 1960’s. Winter enthusiasts have also skied and snowshoed the length of the park. As far as Tom could determine, no one had swum across Quetico Park.

The Hainey family decided to call the swim “Breaking the Barrier” in honour of Sheila’s conviction that no barrier should go unchallenged. Swimming eighty kilometres across a wilderness park is a huge challenge and Tom knew he had to prepare diligently for this daunting swim. He had been a very successful competitive swimmer, but those events were conducted in an indoor pool. He was now going to be swimming in lakes and coping with cold water, wind and waves. In preparation, he swam over 180 km on lakes near Atikokan. Tom is a strong swimmer and he needed to swim at a fast pace if he was going to cross Quetico Park in days rather than weeks. No one he knew had the stamina to swim with him at a fast pace for hours at a stretch but when he swam there was always someone in a boat alongside him. He usually swam alone but sometimes he was joined in the water by his father or a friend and they would swim with him for as long as they could.

Whether Tom swam across the park from south to north or east to west, the distance would be about the same either way. Since most of the large lakes in Quetico Park are oriented east/west, there would be less portaging and a higher percentage of time in the water if he swam the width of the park. He decided to swim from Beaverhouse Lake at the northwestern edge of the park to French Lake near the northeastern edge. Tom felt it was fitting that his swim would end at the lake where he learned to swim and where there was a new barrier-free trail. When Tom knew that the swim was going to include French and Pickerel Lakes, he knew he should conduct practice swims on these lakes. Since no motors are allowed in Quetico Park, he would paddle with others across French Lake and on to the middle of Pickerel Lake. He would then get a good workout by swimming the long, open expanse of one of the longest lakes in Quetico Park and end his swim at French Lake.

Although primarily known for its canoeing, Quetico Park also has a small campground and a Visitor Centre at French Lake in the northeast corner of the park. In 1991, the management of Quetico Park had decided to build a barrier free access trail along the Pickerel River that would start near the French Lake Visitor Centre. Jay Leather, Quetico Park Superintendent at the time, said that “The idea of establishing a barrier-free trail grew from the more basic notion of wanting to create some kind of natural link between drop-in visitors to the pavilion and the rest of the Park. An accessible boardwalk, with viewing pod and rest stops, would accommodate any visitor to the pavilion that might come off the highway.” After Sheila’s tragic death someone on the park staff suggested that the trail be named after Sheila and once that proposal was raised the idea was enthusiastically supported by all. Jay Leather then told the Hainey family that Quetico Park wanted to name the barrier-free trail at French Lake after Sheila Hainey and dedicate the trail to her.

The Swim

A person swimming across a wilderness park requires a lot of support and Dave Maynard was the person in charge of making things go smoothly. Dave was the Assistant Quetico Park Superintendent and had worked for many years on portage crew in the park. In addition to having an intimate knowledge of the park, Dave had worked with Sheila, and was a good friend of Tom’s. The support team was composed of a mixture of friends, family and a two-person medical team. Dave found that it wasn’t difficult to bring people on board who were willing to give five summer days to assist Tom in his swim – the difficulty was in limiting the number of participants.

Map of Quetico Park swim

Map of Quetico Park swim




Day One

The first day of the swim, August 24, started at Hoppy’s Drive-In, owned by Tom’s sister Tammy and her husband Dan Ellis. About one hundred people gathered to give Tom and his crew a send-off. A caravan of cars escorted them to the junction with Highway 11 a few kilometers south of town. From there the swim team continued forty kilometres west and then south down a logging road to the parking area near Beaverhouse Lake. A short portage brought them to a landing and they paddled across the lake to the Beaverhouse Ranger Station where Glenn Nolan and his wife Carrie Freschette were the rangers. They lived at the station during the summer canoe season with their two young children.

Tom had planned on the first day ending early after a relatively short ten kilometer swim. Delays in getting out of Atikokan and at the Beaverhouse landing meant that they got to the ranger station later than planned but they decided to proceed as planned. It was about 5 p.m. when Glenn, Tom Sr. and Tom left by boat for the west end of Beaverhouse Lake where the swim would officially begin. Tom was aware of the long Native history of the area and he wanted to have a tobacco ceremony to begin the swim. They had approached the Elders at Lac La Croix First Nation and they felt it would be best if Glenn Nolan, who has Native ancestry, would conduct the blessing. Glenn decided that the most appropriate place for the ceremony was at a cliff about halfway down the lake. This beautiful, lichen encrusted cliff has pictographs on it and is recognized as a place of power to the Ojibwa in the area. Glenn noted the similarity between Tom’s swim and the tradition of young Ojibwa men testing themselves with physical challenges. Tobacco was placed on a niche in the cliff near the rock paintings and Glenn gave a prayer for Tom’s safety and well-being on the swim.

From the rock paintings cliff, they continued to the portage at the west end of the lake where Tom stepped into the water and began his journey. Sheila had always told him to set himself difficult challenges and then to do his best to meet them. Tom was confident but he knew that swimming the width of Quetico Park was going to be a difficult test. Wearing a wet suit and covered in Vaseline to preserve body heat, he was on the first leg of a long swim to honor his mother. He had seven lakes, two rivers, four creeks and five portages between him and his destination of French Lake at the other end of Quetico Park.

As he swam across Beaverhouse Lake, he would stop swimming periodically for a drink of Gatorade and a carbohydrate snack while clinging to the boat. He would then continue on with steady, powerful strokes. Tom covered the ten kilometers in two hours and fifteen minutes – faster than expected. At 8 p.m. people at the ranger station saw him coming. Tom’s father jumped out of the boat to swim the final stretch with his son and Larry Gashinski and Glenn’s son Peta jumped off the dock and swam out to meet him.

Day Two

This is the big day; yesterday’s ten km swim was just a warm up. Tom was determined to make the second day a long and productive one. The forecast was for a warm day with light winds so Tom set an ambitious goal. He hoped to cover 34 km and reach Jesse Lake. Tom wanted to travel a great distance on this day so that they would have a cushion if the weather took a turn for the worse. There was a celebration planned for French Lake on Saturday at 12:00 and Tom and his crew definitely planned on being part of the celebration.

In anticipation of the first full day of the swim, the rest of the swim crew arrived during the previous evening and now everyone was present and eager to get started. They reviewed the logistics of how they were going to take care of the details of travelling, portaging and camping in a wilderness park. From here to the swim’s completion at French Lake, seventeen people would be paddling eight canoes in support of a solitary swimmer. All of this had to be done so smoothly that Tom could concentrate solely on swimming. Dave Maynard was in charge of logistics but all team members contributed ideas and they decided as a group what roles each person was best suited for. The entire crew was here because they were proud to give their time and energy to help Tom meet his ambitious goal.

Four of the most experienced canoeists and wilderness travelers – Bob Nault, Tom Nash, Glenn Nolan and Tim Beyak – were affectionately known as ‘the grunts.’ They not only had many years of canoeing experience, they also all had detailed knowledge of the park. Their job was help break camp in the morning and then move ahead of the group and have lunch prepared when Tom and his entourage arrived. They then had to cleanup from lunch, leapfrog the rest of the group and have camp set up, supper prepared and have a substantial amount of hot water heated so that Tom could warm up in a plastic swimming pool after a long day swimming in cold water. Since they were carrying the food and tenting supplies for a group of eighteen, the portages were a challenge. If the swim was a climbing expedition, they were the sherpas.

When they were travelling, they always had a canoe in front that was the navigator and kept the swim on course so that Tom didn’t swim farther than necessary. It was important to stay on course since straying into a wrong bay or even going on the wrong side of an island would add extra distance and additional time in the water. Since Max Clement was a trapper and spent so much of his time in the bush, he and his son Albert where often the navigator canoe.

 

Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as 'wing men' as Tom swims down Quetico Lake

Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as ‘wing men’ as Tom swims down Quetico Lake



The people travelling with Tom were broken into two groups that would alternate jobs as the day progressed. Tom always had a canoe on each side of him – his “wing men”. Their primary role was to keep Tom swimming in a straight line. With canoes on both sides to guide him, Tom didn’t have to keep looking ahead and could concentrate solely on swimming. Since he breathed on his right side, the canoe on that side had a person who would give him advice on his pace and answer any questions. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s Atikokan swim coach, was the best person to advise Tom on his pace or technique and he was with Larry Gashinski in one of the right-side wing canoes. They would alternate with a canoe that had Dave Maynard, Tom’s sister Brenda and Tom’s girlfriend Joanne Mucz.

Flanking Tom on the other side was a canoe with either Dr. Henry Vlaar and Mike McKinnon, Susan and Glen Armstrong, or Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis. One of these three canoes would sometimes replace Max and Albert as the navigator canoe. The canoes that weren’t on active duty had time to prepare snacks for Tom or fish for fun or for the evening meal.

It was important to have a medical person near Tom at all times in case any medical problem arose. The swim was unfolding in a wilderness park and they were always many hours from a hospital or medical clinic. Henry Vlaar was a doctor in Atikokan and Susan Armstrong was a physiotherapist and a masseuse. Since Tom was swimming all day in cold lake water, Susan had the important job of giving Tom deep massages to losen him up at the end of a long day. She could also give Tom a massage during breaks during the day or on portages, if required.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.


Dr. Vlaar was concerned that being in the water for ten to twelve hours a day would lead to hypothermia. In addition to the wet suit, they put a thick layer of Vaseline on the exposed parts of Tom’s body – a daily ritual that led to Henry Vlaar being called “Dr. Lube.” It was a warm morning when a lathered Tom left the ranger station and it continued to get hotter as the day progressed. Both Beaverhouse and Quetico Lakes are deep, cold lake trout lakes and the cold water, even on a hot day, took its toll. The grunts were waiting with hot soup for the first break and the canoes not on swim duty would go ahead and prepare a second morning warm food break. Tom was very cold when he got out of the water on Quetico Lake for his break. Dr. Lube went to work re-applying a heavy coat of Vaseline. Tom ate hot soup and lay on the rocks in the sun to warm up. He was eager to continue and was soon back in the water.

His Atikokan swim coach Randy Makarenko and others in the canoes flanking Tom would keep track of his pace. During his training, they had found that Tom would consistently take 47 strokes on each side to cover 100 metres, a speed of about 4.8 km/hr. They found that he was moving at that same pace as he started down Quetico Lake and kept up the pace as he moved down the long, narrow lake. They reached the east end of Quetico Lake before noon and the whole team was ecstatic that twenty kilometers of cold lake was behind them. After two short portages, they would be on Oriana Lake. The ‘grunts’ were ahead of the rest of the crew and had most of the food and camping supplies. In addition to canoes and paddles, there were still packs with some food and camping supplies, clothes and personal items to carry across the portages and Tom wanted to help, but had to be reminded that he had to conserve his energy and simply get himself across the portage.

Once back in the water, Tom kept his rapid pace across Oriana Lake. The 700 metres long portage between Oriana and Jesse Lake is known as the Cedar Portage. As the name implies, it is a swampy portage and the footing is treacherous. This difficult portage was a challenge on a 32 degree Celsius day. Tom again picked up a pack and began to portage but he was told, emphatically this time, that his job – his only job – was to swim. Portaging on a hot day is sweaty work but portages helped Tom warm up before getting back into cold lake water.

A very weary crew found the campsite that the grunts had set up on Jesse Lake. The distance covered and the unexpected pace kept up by Tom meant that they hadn’t had enough time to heat up enough water for the swimming pool. The swimming pool was an inflatable kid’s pool that, when filled with warm water, was used to bring Tom’s core temperature up at the end of the day. The secondary benefit was that the warm water made it easier to get the thick layer of Vaseline off his body. With the Vaseline removed, Tom could warm up more quickly in the tub and, conversely, he could cool down better at night. Due to the lack of enough warm water, they were unable to completely remove the Vaseline from Tom’s body. It was fortunate that it was an unusually warm evening. Even without the benefit of warm water, Tom was able to quickly warm up by simply sitting in the sun.

Due to park restrictions limiting the number of people on a campsite to nine, the group had to always camp on two separate campsites. It was a windless, hot evening and everyone went for a swim to clean up after a hot, sweaty day and to cool off. It remained unusually warm all night, and many, including Tom, got up during the night and jumped in the lake. Tom had a restless night. The insulating layer of Vaseline that wasn’t completely removed kept Tom from cooling down completely during the night.

Day Three

Everyone was up before sunrise to get an early start. Mike McKinnon, the editor of the “Atikokan Progress”, was writing articles about the trip for the Atikokan Progess. He noted that: “About eight of us were camped on the north side of the lake, and someone spotted an eagle approaching our point as we prepared to take down our tents. The majestic bird made three descending circular passes, then swooped into the lake and plucked out a fish not fifteen feet from where we stood.”

Even with the early start, it was uncomfortably warm. Due to the incomplete removal of Vaseline, Tom was warm and unusually tired in the morning. He was uncomfortable and unsure about how far he could go that day. Looking back on the trip, Tom thought that, both mentally and physically, the beginning of the swim on Jesse Lake was the low point of the trip.

When swimming long distances it can get monotonous because you are concentrating on swimming and only seeing what is ahead of you at water level and to one side. Tom knew that he was missing the rocky shorelines, cliffs and large red and white pine that he enjoyed seeing when he paddled in Quetico Park. He was aware that he was on a mission. He knew he would come back and enjoy the scenery, fishing and leisurely mornings with a cup of coffee and blueberry pancakes.

Since loons are common in Quetico Park and were at Tom’s eye level, they were always a welcome sight. Soon after he started swimming on Jesse Lake, Tom noticed three loons not far ahead of him and motioned for the flanking canoes to stop paddling. He treaded water and waited to see what they would do. The loons kept coming closer and closer until they were just two metres from him. Then they slowly sunk out of sight. He told those in the canoes that “the loons are with me.” Coming face-to-face with the loons reminded Tom of his mother’s love of these birds and of the purpose of the swim. His spirit was restored. There was a loon feather floating on the surface after the loons dove. Dave Maynard picked up a loon feather and gave it to Tom at the end of the trip.

The portage between Jesse and Maria is almost as long as the Cedar Portage on the other end of the lake. The team portaged as quickly as they could and were glad to reach the other side. On the portage, they met two men from Scotland on a canoe trip. Tom Sr. was especially excited to see people from the country where he grew up. He was able to have a short conversation with them before he had to get back to work. They gave him a drink – or possibly more than one – of Scotland’s home brew. Good Scotch at any time of day is a treat and at the end of a long portage on a hot day in a wilderness park it was a rare treat for Tom Sr. as well.

Tom and the two flanking canoes were always the last to reach the portage so Tom didn’t get to meet the people from Scotland or warm himself with a belt of Scotch. For some reason, Tom decided to pick up the pace on the kilometer-long Maria Lake. Being a competitive swimmer, Tom usually trained at a high tempo and he generally stayed in attack mode when he was swimming – even when swimming long distances. He found that a slow pace was to his disadvantage. Tom felt that “there’s a pace when you just die … your body drops down, and you end up fighting the water. If I slow down too much I’ll lose the advantage of physics.” The people in the canoes flanking Tom had found that when only one person in the canoe was paddling, they had a hard time keeping abreast of Tom. On Maria Lake, however, Dr Vlaar and Mike McKinnon had a hard time keeping up even when both were paddling. Dave Maynard said that he had never seen a person swim that fast.

From Maria it is just a short and flat portage to Pickerel Lake. From here there were no more portages to their destination on the east side of French Lake. Most of the rest of the swim was on Pickerel Lake, one of the largest Lakes in Quetico Park. Since its axis is east to west, the prevailing west winds mean that waves can build up and canoeists commonly get wind bound. Winds that make canoeing difficult make swimming extremely tiring and hazardous. Even light winds that are not a problem for canoeists can make swimming much more tiring.

In order to get to the main body of the lake Tom had to swim for about 10 km through the Pickerel Narrows. Everyone was tired, Tom included, as they began the swim on Pickerel Lake as the winds began to increase. The combination of tired people, worsening weather and loss of radio communication led to the only significant blunder of the trip. The navigator canoe went ahead to check to see if the narrow channel between Long and Emerald Lake was deep enough for Tom to swim. They found that it was, but a combination of radio malfunction and a bad decision by the canoes flanking Tom led them to angle south around Emerald Island. With storm clouds building up in the west, rather than go to shore they decided to let Tom continue swimming on the route they had chosen. When radio contact was re-established they discovered their mistake. They radioed the grunts, who had set up camp on Lookout Island, that Tom was cold and tired and they would get Tom into the canoe and paddle him to the campsite. They would then return him to the take-out spot to begin the swim in the morning.

The grunts were fortunate in finding that the wonderful campsite on the south side of Lookout Island was open. A fire was blazing, the pool was full of warm water and supper was prepared when the Tom and the rest of the crew paddled in. They had planned to have homemade pork and beans that had been prepared by Dan and Tammy Ellis prior to the trip. When opened, they found the beans in the carefully insulated pot were fermenting. Fortunately, they had brought extra food and another meal was quickly prepared. Lookout Island is named because it has a view to the east toward the expansive, open part of Pickerel Lake. The hot tub was placed so that Tom could look out over the lake while he warmed up and had the Vaseline removed from his body. *IMAGE* What more could Tom ask for – a hot tub with a wonderful view.

A storm struck in full force just after dinner. Everyone watched the storm – the only violent weather of the entire trip – from under the tarps. Tom, Joanne and Brenda went out to the point and enjoyed the storm despite the heckling from those standing dry under the tarp. After the storm passed, there was time for fishing and Glen Armstrong caught a 32 lb northern pike. They sat around the fire in the evening and talked about the day and what was in store for the day ahead. They loved hearing stories about the past in Quetico from Max Clement. Max started working in logging camps when he was fourteen, participated in the last logging drive in Quetico Park in 1940 and 1941 and told colourful tales of logging camp life. As they were paddling, Max would point out physical evidence of logging in the park, such as large metal pins in bedrock along the shore that were used to anchor log booms and the remains of docks and sluiceways visible from the end of some of the portages.

Day Four

After the storm had passed, the weather looked stable. Today was the swim across the big, open expanse of Pickerel Lake. If the wind picked up, this could be a difficult day. It started out cloudy and fairly calm and there was just a light wind when they paddled Tom back to Emerald Island where he had ended his swim the previous afternoon. As they paddled, Tom got a little chilled, but when they reached their destination, Tom quickly slipped into the water and began to swim. It was expected that the exertion of swimming would warm Tom up, but the cold water of Pickerel Lake, noticeably colder than the smaller and shallower Jesse and Maria Lakes from the morning before, didn’t allow that to happen.
Dr. Vlaar talked to Tom and he felt that Tom was showing signs of hypothermia. They radioed ahead to other members of the team that Tom was cold and that they needed to get to a campsite and get a fire going. They reached the campsite where they agreed to meet just as the sun was coming out. Canoes converged and they started a fire, got Tom out of his wet suit, wrapped him in a sleeping bag and brought him hot tea. Hot Gatorade was next on the menu. Warming by a big fire, wrapped in a sleeping bag and drinking hot Gatorade in August in a wilderness park is not an experience many have had. Tom remembers that moment, but he especially cherishes being surrounded by caring friends and family.
From here, Pickerel Lake funnels down towards “the Pines” and the only decision the navigator had to make was which side of a couple of islands to go on. As they were paddling down this stretch, they met a couple of canoes who waved them over and asked what a person was doing swimming out in the middle of Pickerel Lake. Albert Clement told them that the swimmer had been yammering away all morning long and just wouldn’t shut up. When they had as much as they could stand, they threw him in the lake and told him to swim to shore. Albert told the startled canoeists that the swimmer had a long way to go to get to the next island but they were confident he would make it. The canoeists were amazed, scratched their heads and paddled off.

It remained calm as Tom swam down this open stretch of Pickerel Lake. The weather had been exceptionally kind. Except for the brief storm the previous evening it had been unusually calm and warm. They arrived at ‘the Pines’ at 1:30. Since it was only about six km to their destination at French Lake, it was only a two hour swim away at Tom’s average pace. They could have easily kept going and finished the swim. Since the ceremony to mark Tom’s arrival was set for the next day at 11:30 a.m., they stopped.

“The Pines” is situated on a magnificent beach backed by large red and white pine. Archaeologists have found evidence that people have used this site since the end of the last Ice Age. A long, west facing sand beach with flat areas to camp under large pines – it’s no wonder that Paleo-Indians, voyageurs, park rangers, poachers and canoeists have camped on this beach. It is also not surprising that there were people camped there when Tom swam to the site. Fortunately, the 300 metre long beach has more than one campsite and they were able to find a place to camp.

This was the first chance that the team had to really relax and the sense of what they had accomplished began to sink in. Family and friends from Atikokan paddled out and brought fresh food. They had eaten well on the trip, but the thick steaks and corn on the cob brought from town was gratefully accepted. Tom had arranged for white, nylon jackets with the logo for the swim to be brought to the campsite and he presented one to each member of the crew. The swim was almost complete, the pressure was off, and they enjoyed a leisurely evening in Quetico Park.

Day Five

They awoke to another beautiful, sunny day and they all knew that soon there would soon be a large group of people gathering at French Lake to see Tom complete the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. For the last three mornings they had been on the water by 7:00. This morning was different; most of the crew weren’t even out of their tents by 7. They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the beach and set off as a group. This, the last day, was the only time that all eight canoes paddled together. It’s only a kilometer to the Pickerel River and Tom kept his usual rapid pace. On previous mornings the grunts had always gone ahead to get a head start on portaging, but today they got to flank Tom as he headed up the Pickerel River. Tom loves swimming in lakes but swimming in rivers and creeks is not his idea of a good time. Throughout the swim, Tom had to be aware of tree branches, boulders and weeds whenever he swam through narrows, between islands, in shallow parts of lakes, and as he approached portages. Throughout the trip, Tom found boulders and branches to be bothersome. Weeds, however, are different – Tom simply hates weeds.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

The Pickerel River is slow moving, shallow and has a lot of weeds and tall reeds. The river twists and turns and distances can be shortened by swimming close to shore on bends. Although it meant he had to swim further, Tom always opted to swim down the middle of the river. Occasionally he would swim into weeds and chaos would occur. He’d turn sharply to get untangled or simply to avoid weeds. The canoes could not turn as quickly as he could and he would bump into them and be struck by paddles. He would retaliate by splashing water on them and there was lots of laughter as they slowly moved up the river.

Even moving at a leisurely pace, they were well ahead of their schedule when they reached the end of the river. They were expected to arrive at noon at the French Lake beach so they had to find a place to go ashore and wait. Time goes by slowly when the end of the quest is so close and you are eager to get going. Tom doesn’t believe in swimming slowly so they waited, dressed in their new white jackets, until Tom could lead them across French Lake at his usual quick tempo.

Their group of eight canoes could be seen from a long way off. When the large crowd gathered on the beach saw the splashing of Tom’s arms, they started to shout and applaud. The swim team realized that they didn’t have a plan for what would happen next. Tom swam over towards his father’s canoe thinking that he should swim to the beach next to his father. Tom Sr. waved him away since he wanted Tom to have this moment of triumph for himself. All the canoes then slowed down and Tom moved ahead. Mike McKinnon described what happened at this crucial moment. “Finally, a moment I will never forget: We approached the French Lake beach lined eight canoes abreast. Tom in our centre. The distant cheers and screams of the crowd at the beach formed a counterpoint to the steady cadence of Tom’s strokes striking the water. The moment came – we let Tom spurt ahead. This was his, his alone. The cheering grew. Silently, tearfully, we lifted our paddles in salute to this amazing young man.”

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

Conclusion

When Tom stepped out of the water at the French Lake beach on August 28, he had swum 80 kilometers and portaged over a kilometer from his start on the west end of Beaverhouse Lake on August 24. It was a tremendous accomplishment – especially for someone who was born with spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a birth defect where the spinal column fails to develop properly resulting in varying degrees of permanent damage to the spinal cord and nervous system. When Tom was a baby, his parents were told that he would never walk. They were determined to prove the doctors wrong. The courage and strength of Sheila Hainey and the entire Hainey family helped Tom overcome his disability and concentrate on his abilities. It was a long, slow and difficult process, but with determination and rehabilitation, Tom was able to walk. When he was six he went to the Shriner’s Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba for surgeries to improve his walking and kept returning for extensive sessions of physiotherapy. Through determination, exercise, surgery and physiotherapy, Tom’s walking improved. Even with the improvement in the use of his legs, when Tom swims, his legs simply drag behind. Tom swims with his arms only and he literally pulls himself through the water.

Tom's sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.

Tom’s sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.

Tom was accompanied by his father and sister Brenda on the swim and two sisters, Tammy and Debbie, were waiting on the beach when he arrived and showered him in champagne. The Haineys are a close family but, when he was growing up having three older sisters was both a gift and a challenge. When he was young, Tom hated the fact that his sister Brenda was a better swimmer than him. He joined the Nakokita Swim Club with the express purpose of becoming a better swimmer than his sister. Tom trained diligently, first to beat his sister and then to beat whoever he was competing against.

When Tom was 10, his parents won enough money in a lottery to have a swimming pool built in their backyard. Using this pool the Haineys came up with innovative training techniques to aid Tom in his training. For one of his exercises, they would tie elastic surgical cords to his ankles and to the ladder in the pool. He could then swim as hard as he wanted (often for over an hour) and not have to keep turning when he reached the end of the backyard pool. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s coach at the Nakokita Swim Club, had a mind-set similar to Sheila’s so he made no allowance for Tom’s disability. He was treated as just another swimmer and he competed against everyone. Tom played in as many sports as he could but swimming was where he could competitive and not feel disabled.

Tom progressed rapidly as a swimmer and in 1979, at the age of thirteen, he qualified for the Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled. He won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. The next year, he competed in the Canadian National Wheelchair Games where he won five swimming gold medals. During the ten years that Tom competed internationally, he competed in three Paralympic Games (1984, 1988, and 1992) and two World Championships (1986, 1990). While representing Canada at these major events, he won six gold and three silver medals and at one time held five world records.

Tom’s sister Debbie was seven months pregnant when she went with her sister Tammy and other family members into the water to hug Tom and pour champagne over his head. Eighteen years later, her son Josh was graduating from Atikokan High School and Tom gave the 2011 commencement address. Atikokan had gone through tough times since the closing of the mines in the late 1970s. Tom emphasized that, although Atikokan’s population was only half of what it was when he was born, the town was showing amazing resiliency. He told the graduates that, if they were born and raised in Atikokan, they had courage in their DNA.

He told them: “Although I am not an expert, trust me when I tell you I know courage. Courage is;
The soldier on the battlefield in defense of his country.
The lady who jumps into the water to save a stranger.
The shy teenager who asks a girl to dance.
And, the mother who looks down at her hurting son and has to be strong.

He told the story about his mother’s courage when confronted by her son coming home from school in grade one.

“After enduring the torment of being the only disabled kid in my class, I went home in tears to get comfort. Along the way I formed a list in my head, my “hate list.” Every kid that day, and for years after who was mean to me was on that list. When I finally arrived home, (because although my parents got me to walk, they weren’t very successful at my speed) my mom was standing at the kitchen sink. I walked up to her and told her that kids had called me names. “What did they call you” was her response. Between wiping my tears and snot I managed to stammer “they called me crippled.” My mom looked down at me and said, “Well aren’t you?” Yup, she went on my hate list as well. But my mom knew that day was coming and I am sure she braced herself and held back her tears, when she spoke. I changed at that moment, I didn’t realize it until many years later, but from that point on my reality did not include pity.”

A ceremony to dedicate the barrier-free trail at French Lake was held after the completion of the swim. Tammy Ellis, Tom’s oldest sister, talked at the unveiling of the memorial plaque to Sheila Hainey. “Most of us, and fortunately so, will never experience the heartache of being told that one of our children will never walk. Our mother faced this with Tommy, but her reaction was not typical. Instead of overprotecting him and sheltering him, she allowed him to challenge himself and never once allowed him to feel sorry for himself (despite his several attempts). Our mother was feisty, determined and had unwavering resolve – to make sure that the spina bifida he was born with did not in any way limit his life. Those qualities of our mother are so evident that they not only led to Tommy’s success today, they also prompted the Ministry of Natural Resources to dedicate this trail.”

The swim was not just a family affair; much of the Atikokan community was also involved. Quetico North Outfitters supplied canoes for the practice swim and Canoe Canada Outfitters provided the canoes that were used in support of the cross-Quetico swim. Numerous other Atikokan business made available other supplies and services that made the swim a success. Don Meany, the owner of XY Paddle Company in Atikokan, made two paddles and donated them to the swim. One was given to Tom Hainey at the completion of the swim and the other paddle was auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Foundation. Frank Covello, an Atikokan businessman, won the bidding at $1,000 and immediately gave the paddle to Tom Hainey Sr.

When Tom stopped competing, with his love of swimming it was a natural evolution to become a coach. Tom became coach at the Nakokita Swim Club in Atikokan – the club that he competed for when he was young. Tom Hainey is currently the Head Coach of the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has a staff of 15 full-and part-time coaches in a program that has developed swimmers who have competed at the Olympics , Paralympics, Pan Am Games, Commonwealth Games and many other top international competitions. Tom is an inspirational coach who teaches swimming by example as well as by words. Laurence Cohen started out as a swimmer coached by Tom and now he is a coach of developing swimmers. He told me that: “As a club, we’ve developed a motto – it’s made up of three words – Pride, Toughness, Respect. I think that we really hold our swimmers to that …… and it all really comes from Tom’s leadership.”

Tom was instrumental in having the swimmers at the Manta Swim Club hold an annual fund-raising event known as “Kids Helping Kids.” All of the proceeds go to the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation which is the fundraising arm of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is the same hospital, then known as the Shriner’s Hospital, that Tom went to for surgery and where he spent many months in rehabilitation when he was young.

Swimming has been a major part of Tom’s life for as long as he can remember. Four years ago Tom and his wife Sandy had a daughter. From the moment Danikah was born, swimming was no longer the primary focus of his life. His vision has widened as his family has grown. Now, Tom is a parent with a child to nourish and challenge – and to be challenged by.

Tom told the people at French Lake that his mother’s determination to always place challenges in front of him was the single most important factor that changed his life. With his mother’s encouragement and guidance, Tom had broken many barriers in his life on his way to becoming a holder of multiple world records in swimming. The boy who had been told he may never walk, with his mother’s guidance not only walked but became a world class swimmer. He used his arms to pull himself through the water of seven lakes in the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. He walked the portages and walked out of the water at French Lake into the arms of family and friends.

The “Breaking the Barrier” swim across Quetico – what Tom called “the greatest swim of my life” – had nothing to do with competition but was all about family and community. Sheila would have been proud that her son swam across Quetico Park in her honour. She would have been even prouder of his accomplishments as a coach, a parent and as an inspiration to others.


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. Photos are by Randy Makarenko and Pauline Gashinski. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Conclusion

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Conclusion

When Tom stepped out of the water at the French Lake beach on August 28, he had swum 80 kilometers and portaged over a kilometer from his start on the west end of Beaverhouse Lake on August 24. It was a tremendous accomplishment – especially for someone who was born with spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a birth defect where the spinal column fails to develop properly resulting in varying degrees of permanent damage to the spinal cord and nervous system. When Tom was a baby, his parents were told that he would never walk. They were determined to prove the doctors wrong. The courage and strength of Sheila Hainey and the entire Hainey family helped Tom overcome his disability and concentrate on his abilities. It was a long, slow and difficult process, but with determination and rehabilitation, Tom was able to walk. When he was six he went to the Shriner’s Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba for surgeries to improve his walking and kept returning for extensive sessions of physiotherapy. Through determination, exercise, surgery and physiotherapy, Tom’s walking improved. Even with the improvement in the use of his legs, when Tom swims, his legs simply drag behind. Tom swims with his arms only and he literally pulls himself through the water.

Tom's sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.

Tom’s sister Tammy gives Tom a hug at French Lake.

Tom was accompanied by his father and sister Brenda on the swim and two sisters, Tammy and Debbie, were waiting on the beach when he arrived and showered him in champagne. The Haineys are a close family but, when he was growing up having three older sisters was both a gift and a challenge. When he was young, Tom hated the fact that his sister Brenda was a better swimmer than him. He joined the Nakokita Swim Club with the express purpose of becoming a better swimmer than his sister. Tom trained diligently, first to beat his sister and then to beat whoever he was competing against.

When Tom was 10, his parents won enough money in a lottery to have a swimming pool built in their backyard. Using this pool the Haineys came up with innovative training techniques to aid Tom in his training. For one of his exercises, they would tie elastic surgical cords to his ankles and to the ladder in the pool. He could then swim as hard as he wanted (often for over an hour) and not have to keep turning when he reached the end of the backyard pool. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s coach at the Nakokita Swim Club, had a mind-set similar to Sheila’s so he made no allowance for Tom’s disability. He was treated as just another swimmer and he competed against everyone. Tom played in as many sports as he could but swimming was where he could competitive and not feel disabled.

Tom progressed rapidly as a swimmer and in 1979, at the age of thirteen, he qualified for the Ontario Games for the Physically Disabled. He won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. The next year, he competed in the Canadian National Wheelchair Games where he won five swimming gold medals. During the ten years that Tom competed internationally, he competed in three Paralympic Games (1984, 1988, and 1992) and two World Championships (1986, 1990). While representing Canada at these major events, he won six gold and three silver medals and at one time held five world records.

Tom’s sister Debbie was seven months pregnant when she went with her sister Tammy and other family members into the water to hug Tom and pour champagne over his head. Eighteen years later, her son Josh was graduating from Atikokan High School and Tom gave the 2011 commencement address. Atikokan had gone through tough times since the closing of the mines in the late 1970s. Tom emphasized that, although Atikokan’s population was only half of what it was when he was born, the town was showing amazing resiliency. He told the graduates that, if they were born and raised in Atikokan, they had courage in their DNA.

He told them: “Although I am not an expert, trust me when I tell you I know courage. Courage is;
The soldier on the battlefield in defense of his country.
The lady who jumps into the water to save a stranger.
The shy teenager who asks a girl to dance.
And, the mother who looks down at her hurting son and has to be strong.

He told the story about his mother’s courage when confronted by her son coming home from school in grade one.

“After enduring the torment of being the only disabled kid in my class, I went home in tears to get comfort. Along the way I formed a list in my head, my “hate list.” Every kid that day, and for years after who was mean to me was on that list. When I finally arrived home, (because although my parents got me to walk, they weren’t very successful at my speed) my mom was standing at the kitchen sink. I walked up to her and told her that kids had called me names. “What did they call you” was her response. Between wiping my tears and snot I managed to stammer “they called me crippled.” My mom looked down at me and said, “Well aren’t you?” Yup, she went on my hate list as well. But my mom knew that day was coming and I am sure she braced herself and held back her tears, when she spoke. I changed at that moment, I didn’t realize it until many years later, but from that point on my reality did not include pity.”

A ceremony to dedicate the barrier-free trail at French Lake was held after the completion of the swim. Tammy Ellis, Tom’s oldest sister, talked at the unveiling of the memorial plaque to Sheila Hainey. “Most of us, and fortunately so, will never experience the heartache of being told that one of our children will never walk. Our mother faced this with Tommy, but her reaction was not typical. Instead of overprotecting him and sheltering him, she allowed him to challenge himself and never once allowed him to feel sorry for himself (despite his several attempts). Our mother was feisty, determined and had unwavering resolve – to make sure that the spina bifida he was born with did not in any way limit his life. Those qualities of our mother are so evident that they not only led to Tommy’s success today, they also prompted the Ministry of Natural Resources to dedicate this trail.”

The swim was not just a family affair; much of the Atikokan community was also involved. Quetico North Outfitters supplied canoes for the practice swim and Canoe Canada Outfitters provided the canoes that were used in support of the cross-Quetico swim. Numerous other Atikokan business made available other supplies and services that made the swim a success. Don Meany, the owner of XY Paddle Company in Atikokan, made two paddles and donated them to the swim. One was given to Tom Hainey at the completion of the swim and the other paddle was auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Foundation. Frank Covello, an Atikokan businessman, won the bidding at $1,000 and immediately gave the paddle to Tom Hainey Sr.

When Tom stopped competing, with his love of swimming it was a natural evolution to become a coach. Tom became coach at the Nakokita Swim Club in Atikokan – the club that he competed for when he was young. Tom Hainey is currently the Head Coach of the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has a staff of 15 full-and part-time coaches in a program that has developed swimmers who have competed at the Olympics , Paralympics, Pan Am Games, Commonwealth Games and many other top international competitions. Tom is an inspirational coach who teaches swimming by example as well as by words. Laurence Cohen started out as a swimmer coached by Tom and now he is a coach of developing swimmers. He told me that: “As a club, we’ve developed a motto – it’s made up of three words – Pride, Toughness, Respect. I think that we really hold our swimmers to that …… and it all really comes from Tom’s leadership.”

Tom was instrumental in having the swimmers at the Manta Swim Club hold an annual fund-raising event known as “Kids Helping Kids.” All of the proceeds go to the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation which is the fundraising arm of the Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is the same hospital, then known as the Shriner’s Hospital, that Tom went to for surgery and where he spent many months in rehabilitation when he was young.

Swimming has been a major part of Tom’s life for as long as he can remember. Four years ago Tom and his wife Sandy had a daughter. From the moment Danikah was born, swimming was no longer the primary focus of his life. His vision has widened as his family has grown. Now, Tom is a parent with a child to nourish and challenge – and to be challenged by.

Tom told the people at French Lake that his mother’s determination to always place challenges in front of him was the single most important factor that changed his life. With his mother’s encouragement and guidance, Tom had broken many barriers in his life on his way to becoming a holder of multiple world records in swimming. The boy who had been told he may never walk, with his mother’s guidance not only walked but became a world class swimmer. He used his arms to pull himself through the water of seven lakes in the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. He walked the portages and walked out of the water at French Lake into the arms of family and friends.

The “Breaking the Barrier” swim across Quetico – what Tom called “the greatest swim of my life” – had nothing to do with competition but was all about family and community. Sheila would have been proud that her son swam across Quetico Park in her honour. She would have been even prouder of his accomplishments as a coach, a parent and as an inspiration to others.

——————————————————————————————————————————————–


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. Photos are by Randy Makarenko and Pauline Gashinski. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Day Five

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Five

They awoke to another beautiful, sunny day and they all knew that soon there would soon be a large group of people gathering at French Lake to see Tom complete the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. For the last three mornings they had been on the water by 7:00. This morning was different; most of the crew weren’t even out of their tents by 7. They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the beach and set off as a group. This, the last day, was the only time that all eight canoes paddled together. It’s only a kilometer to the Pickerel River and Tom kept his usual rapid pace. On previous mornings the grunts had always gone ahead to get a head start on portaging, but today they got to flank Tom as he headed up the Pickerel River. Tom loves swimming in lakes but swimming in rivers and creeks is not his idea of a good time. Throughout the swim, Tom had to be aware of tree branches, boulders and weeds whenever he swam through narrows, between islands, in shallow parts of lakes, and as he approached portages. Throughout the trip, Tom found boulders and branches to be bothersome. Weeds, however, are different – Tom simply hates weeds.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

The Pickerel River is slow moving, shallow and has a lot of weeds and tall reeds. The river twists and turns and distances can be shortened by swimming close to shore on bends. Although it meant he had to swim further, Tom always opted to swim down the middle of the river. Occasionally he would swim into weeds and chaos would occur. He’d turn sharply to get untangled or simply to avoid weeds. The canoes could not turn as quickly as he could and he would bump into them and be struck by paddles. He would retaliate by splashing water on them and there was lots of laughter as they slowly moved up the river.

Even moving at a leisurely pace, they were well ahead of their schedule when they reached the end of the river. They were expected to arrive at noon at the French Lake beach so they had to find a place to go ashore and wait. Time goes by slowly when the end of the quest is so close and you are eager to get going. Tom doesn’t believe in swimming slowly so they waited, dressed in their new white jackets, until Tom could lead them across French Lake at his usual quick tempo.

Their group of eight canoes could be seen from a long way off. When the large crowd gathered on the beach saw the splashing of Tom’s arms, they started to shout and applaud. The swim team realized that they didn’t have a plan for what would happen next. Tom swam over towards his father’s canoe thinking that he should swim to the beach next to his father. Tom Sr. waved him away since he wanted Tom to have this moment of triumph for himself. All the canoes then slowed down and Tom moved ahead. Mike McKinnon described what happened at this crucial moment. “Finally, a moment I will never forget: We approached the French Lake beach lined eight canoes abreast. Tom in our centre. The distant cheers and screams of the crowd at the beach formed a counterpoint to the steady cadence of Tom’s strokes striking the water. The moment came – we let Tom spurt ahead. This was his, his alone. The cheering grew. Silently, tearfully, we lifted our paddles in salute to this amazing young man.”

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Conclusion


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Day Four

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Four

After the storm had passed, the weather looked stable. Today was the swim across the big, open expanse of Pickerel Lake. If the wind picked up, this could be a difficult day. It started out cloudy and fairly calm and there was just a light wind when they paddled Tom back to Emerald Island where he had ended his swim the previous afternoon. As they paddled, Tom got a little chilled, but when they reached their destination, Tom quickly slipped into the water and began to swim. It was expected that the exertion of swimming would warm Tom up, but the cold water of Pickerel Lake, noticeably colder than the smaller and shallower Jesse and Maria Lakes from the morning before, didn’t allow that to happen.
Dr. Vlaar talked to Tom and he felt that Tom was showing signs of hypothermia. They radioed ahead to other members of the team that Tom was cold and that they needed to get to a campsite and get a fire going. They reached the campsite where they agreed to meet just as the sun was coming out. Canoes converged and they started a fire, got Tom out of his wet suit, wrapped him in a sleeping bag and brought him hot tea. Hot Gatorade was next on the menu. Warming by a big fire, wrapped in a sleeping bag and drinking hot Gatorade in August in a wilderness park is not an experience many have had. Tom remembers that moment, but he especially cherishes being surrounded by caring friends and family.
From here, Pickerel Lake funnels down towards “the Pines” and the only decision the navigator had to make was which side of a couple of islands to go on. As they were paddling down this stretch, they met a couple of canoes who waved them over and asked what a person was doing swimming out in the middle of Pickerel Lake. Albert Clement told them that the swimmer had been yammering away all morning long and just wouldn’t shut up. When they had as much as they could stand, they threw him in the lake and told him to swim to shore. Albert told the startled canoeists that the swimmer had a long way to go to get to the next island but they were confident he would make it. The canoeists were amazed, scratched their heads and paddled off.

It remained calm as Tom swam down this open stretch of Pickerel Lake. The weather had been exceptionally kind. Except for the brief storm the previous evening it had been unusually calm and warm. They arrived at ‘the Pines’ at 1:30. Since it was only about six km to their destination at French Lake, it was only a two hour swim away at Tom’s average pace. They could have easily kept going and finished the swim. Since the ceremony to mark Tom’s arrival was set for the next day at 11:30 a.m., they stopped.

“The Pines” is situated on a magnificent beach backed by large red and white pine. Archaeologists have found evidence that people have used this site since the end of the last Ice Age. A long, west facing sand beach with flat areas to camp under large pines – it’s no wonder that Paleo-Indians, voyageurs, park rangers, poachers and canoeists have camped on this beach. It is also not surprising that there were people camped there when Tom swam to the site. Fortunately, the 300 metre long beach has more than one campsite and they were able to find a place to camp.

This was the first chance that the team had to really relax and the sense of what they had accomplished began to sink in. Family and friends from Atikokan paddled out and brought fresh food. They had eaten well on the trip, but the thick steaks and corn on the cob brought from town was gratefully accepted. Tom had arranged for white, nylon jackets with the logo for the swim to be brought to the campsite and he presented one to each member of the crew. The swim was almost complete, the pressure was off, and they enjoyed a leisurely evening in Quetico Park.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Five


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Day Three

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Three

Everyone was up before sunrise to get an early start. Mike McKinnon, the editor of the “Atikokan Progress”, was writing articles about the trip for the Atikokan Progess. He noted that: “About eight of us were camped on the north side of the lake, and someone spotted an eagle approaching our point as we prepared to take down our tents. The majestic bird made three descending circular passes, then swooped into the lake and plucked out a fish not fifteen feet from where we stood.”

Even with the early start, it was uncomfortably warm. Due to the incomplete removal of Vaseline, Tom was warm and unusually tired in the morning. He was uncomfortable and unsure about how far he could go that day. Looking back on the trip, Tom thought that, both mentally and physically, the beginning of the swim on Jesse Lake was the low point of the trip.

When swimming long distances it can get monotonous because you are concentrating on swimming and only seeing what is ahead of you at water level and to one side. Tom knew that he was missing the rocky shorelines, cliffs and large red and white pine that he enjoyed seeing when he paddled in Quetico Park. He was aware that he was on a mission. He knew he would come back and enjoy the scenery, fishing and leisurely mornings with a cup of coffee and blueberry pancakes.

Since loons are common in Quetico Park and were at Tom’s eye level, they were always a welcome sight. Soon after he started swimming on Jesse Lake, Tom noticed three loons not far ahead of him and motioned for the flanking canoes to stop paddling. He treaded water and waited to see what they would do. The loons kept coming closer and closer until they were just two metres from him. Then they slowly sunk out of sight. He told those in the canoes that “the loons are with me.” Coming face-to-face with the loons reminded Tom of his mother’s love of these birds and of the purpose of the swim. His spirit was restored. There was a loon feather floating on the surface after the loons dove. Dave Maynard picked up a loon feather and gave it to Tom at the end of the trip.

The portage between Jesse and Maria is almost as long as the Cedar Portage on the other end of the lake. The team portaged as quickly as they could and were glad to reach the other side. On the portage, they met two men from Scotland on a canoe trip. Tom Sr. was especially excited to see people from the country where he grew up. He was able to have a short conversation with them before he had to get back to work. They gave him a drink – or possibly more than one – of Scotland’s home brew. Good Scotch at any time of day is a treat and at the end of a long portage on a hot day in a wilderness park it was a rare treat for Tom Sr. as well.

Tom and the two flanking canoes were always the last to reach the portage so Tom didn’t get to meet the people from Scotland or warm himself with a belt of Scotch. For some reason, Tom decided to pick up the pace on the kilometer-long Maria Lake. Being a competitive swimmer, Tom usually trained at a high tempo and he generally stayed in attack mode when he was swimming – even when swimming long distances. He found that a slow pace was to his disadvantage. Tom felt that “there’s a pace when you just die … your body drops down, and you end up fighting the water. If I slow down too much I’ll lose the advantage of physics.” The people in the canoes flanking Tom had found that when only one person in the canoe was paddling, they had a hard time keeping abreast of Tom. On Maria Lake, however, Dr Vlaar and Mike McKinnon had a hard time keeping up even when both were paddling. Dave Maynard said that he had never seen a person swim that fast.

From Maria it is just a short and flat portage to Pickerel Lake. From here there were no more portages to their destination on the east side of French Lake. Most of the rest of the swim was on Pickerel Lake, one of the largest Lakes in Quetico Park. Since its axis is east to west, the prevailing west winds mean that waves can build up and canoeists commonly get wind bound. Winds that make canoeing difficult make swimming extremely tiring and hazardous. Even light winds that are not a problem for canoeists can make swimming much more tiring.

In order to get to the main body of the lake Tom had to swim for about 10 km through the Pickerel Narrows. Everyone was tired, Tom included, as they began the swim on Pickerel Lake as the winds began to increase. The combination of tired people, worsening weather and loss of radio communication led to the only significant blunder of the trip. The navigator canoe went ahead to check to see if the narrow channel between Long and Emerald Lake was deep enough for Tom to swim. They found that it was, but a combination of radio malfunction and a bad decision by the canoes flanking Tom led them to angle south around Emerald Island. With storm clouds building up in the west, rather than go to shore they decided to let Tom continue swimming on the route they had chosen. When radio contact was re-established they discovered their mistake. They radioed the grunts, who had set up camp on Lookout Island, that Tom was cold and tired and they would get Tom into the canoe and paddle him to the campsite. They would then return him to the take-out spot to begin the swim in the morning.

The grunts were fortunate in finding that the wonderful campsite on the south side of Lookout Island was open. A fire was blazing, the pool was full of warm water and supper was prepared when the Tom and the rest of the crew paddled in. They had planned to have homemade pork and beans that had been prepared by Dan and Tammy Ellis prior to the trip. When opened, they found the beans in the carefully insulated pot were fermenting. Fortunately, they had brought extra food and another meal was quickly prepared. Lookout Island is named because it has a view to the east toward the expansive, open part of Pickerel Lake. The hot tub was placed so that Tom could look out over the lake while he warmed up and had the Vaseline removed from his body. *IMAGE* What more could Tom ask for – a hot tub with a wonderful view.

A storm struck in full force just after dinner. Everyone watched the storm – the only violent weather of the entire trip – from under the tarps. Tom, Joanne and Brenda went out to the point and enjoyed the storm despite the heckling from those standing dry under the tarp. After the storm passed, there was time for fishing and Glen Armstrong caught a 32 lb northern pike. They sat around the fire in the evening and talked about the day and what was in store for the day ahead. They loved hearing stories about the past in Quetico from Max Clement. Max started working in logging camps when he was fourteen, participated in the last logging drive in Quetico Park in 1940 and 1941 and told colourful tales of logging camp life. As they were paddling, Max would point out physical evidence of logging in the park, such as large metal pins in bedrock along the shore that were used to anchor log booms and the remains of docks and sluiceways visible from the end of some of the portages.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Four


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Day Two

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Two

This is the big day; yesterday’s ten km swim was just a warm up. Tom was determined to make the second day a long and productive one. The forecast was for a warm day with light winds so Tom set an ambitious goal. He hoped to cover 34 km and reach Jesse Lake. Tom wanted to travel a great distance on this day so that they would have a cushion if the weather took a turn for the worse. There was a celebration planned for French Lake on Saturday at 12:00 and Tom and his crew definitely planned on being part of the celebration.

In anticipation of the first full day of the swim, the rest of the swim crew arrived during the previous evening and now everyone was present and eager to get started. They reviewed the logistics of how they were going to take care of the details of travelling, portaging and camping in a wilderness park. From here to the swim’s completion at French Lake, seventeen people would be paddling eight canoes in support of a solitary swimmer. All of this had to be done so smoothly that Tom could concentrate solely on swimming. Dave Maynard was in charge of logistics but all team members contributed ideas and they decided as a group what roles each person was best suited for. The entire crew was here because they were proud to give their time and energy to help Tom meet his ambitious goal.

Four of the most experienced canoeists and wilderness travelers – Bob Nault, Tom Nash, Glenn Nolan and Tim Beyak – were affectionately known as ‘the grunts.’ They not only had many years of canoeing experience, they also all had detailed knowledge of the park. Their job was help break camp in the morning and then move ahead of the group and have lunch prepared when Tom and his entourage arrived. They then had to cleanup from lunch, leapfrog the rest of the group and have camp set up, supper prepared and have a substantial amount of hot water heated so that Tom could warm up in a plastic swimming pool after a long day swimming in cold water. Since they were carrying the food and tenting supplies for a group of eighteen, the portages were a challenge. If the swim was a climbing expedition, they were the sherpas.

When they were travelling, they always had a canoe in front that was the navigator and kept the swim on course so that Tom didn’t swim farther than necessary. It was important to stay on course since straying into a wrong bay or even going on the wrong side of an island would add extra distance and additional time in the water. Since Max Clement was a trapper and spent so much of his time in the bush, he and his son Albert where often the navigator canoe.

 

Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as 'wing men' as Tom swims down Quetico Lake

Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as ‘wing men’ as Tom swims down Quetico Lake

The people travelling with Tom were broken into two groups that would alternate jobs as the day progressed. Tom always had a canoe on each side of him – his “wing men”. Their primary role was to keep Tom swimming in a straight line. With canoes on both sides to guide him, Tom didn’t have to keep looking ahead and could concentrate solely on swimming. Since he breathed on his right side, the canoe on that side had a person who would give him advice on his pace and answer any questions. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s Atikokan swim coach, was the best person to advise Tom on his pace or technique and he was with Larry Gashinski in one of the right-side wing canoes. They would alternate with a canoe that had Dave Maynard, Tom’s sister Brenda and Tom’s girlfriend Joanne Mucz.

Flanking Tom on the other side was a canoe with either Dr. Henry Vlaar and Mike McKinnon, Susan and Glen Armstrong, or Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis. One of these three canoes would sometimes replace Max and Albert as the navigator canoe. The canoes that weren’t on active duty had time to prepare snacks for Tom or fish for fun or for the evening meal.

It was important to have a medical person near Tom at all times in case any medical problem arose. The swim was unfolding in a wilderness park and they were always many hours from a hospital or medical clinic. Henry Vlaar was a doctor in Atikokan and Susan Armstrong was a physiotherapist and a masseuse. Since Tom was swimming all day in cold lake water, Susan had the important job of giving Tom deep massages to losen him up at the end of a long day. She could also give Tom a massage during breaks during the day or on portages, if required.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.


Dr. Vlaar was concerned that being in the water for ten to twelve hours a day would lead to hypothermia. In addition to the wet suit, they put a thick layer of Vaseline on the exposed parts of Tom’s body – a daily ritual that led to Henry Vlaar being called “Dr. Lube.” It was a warm morning when a lathered Tom left the ranger station and it continued to get hotter as the day progressed. Both Beaverhouse and Quetico Lakes are deep, cold lake trout lakes and the cold water, even on a hot day, took its toll. The grunts were waiting with hot soup for the first break and the canoes not on swim duty would go ahead and prepare a second morning warm food break. Tom was very cold when he got out of the water on Quetico Lake for his break. Dr. Lube went to work re-applying a heavy coat of Vaseline. Tom ate hot soup and lay on the rocks in the sun to warm up. He was eager to continue and was soon back in the water.

His Atikokan swim coach Randy Makarenko and others in the canoes flanking Tom would keep track of his pace. During his training, they had found that Tom would consistently take 47 strokes on each side to cover 100 metres, a speed of about 4.8 km/hr. They found that he was moving at that same pace as he started down Quetico Lake and kept up the pace as he moved down the long, narrow lake. They reached the east end of Quetico Lake before noon and the whole team was ecstatic that twenty kilometers of cold lake was behind them. After two short portages, they would be on Oriana Lake. The ‘grunts’ were ahead of the rest of the crew and had most of the food and camping supplies. In addition to canoes and paddles, there were still packs with some food and camping supplies, clothes and personal items to carry across the portages and Tom wanted to help, but had to be reminded that he had to conserve his energy and simply get himself across the portage.

Once back in the water, Tom kept his rapid pace across Oriana Lake. The 700 metres long portage between Oriana and Jesse Lake is known as the Cedar Portage. As the name implies, it is a swampy portage and the footing is treacherous. This difficult portage was a challenge on a 32 degree Celsius day. Tom again picked up a pack and began to portage but he was told, emphatically this time, that his job – his only job – was to swim. Portaging on a hot day is sweaty work but portages helped Tom warm up before getting back into cold lake water.

A very weary crew found the campsite that the grunts had set up on Jesse Lake. The distance covered and the unexpected pace kept up by Tom meant that they hadn’t had enough time to heat up enough water for the swimming pool. The swimming pool was an inflatable kid’s pool that, when filled with warm water, was used to bring Tom’s core temperature up at the end of the day. The secondary benefit was that the warm water made it easier to get the thick layer of Vaseline off his body. With the Vaseline removed, Tom could warm up more quickly in the tub and, conversely, he could cool down better at night. Due to the lack of enough warm water, they were unable to completely remove the Vaseline from Tom’s body. It was fortunate that it was an unusually warm evening. Even without the benefit of warm water, Tom was able to quickly warm up by simply sitting in the sun.

Due to park restrictions limiting the number of people on a campsite to nine, the group had to always camp on two separate campsites. It was a windless, hot evening and everyone went for a swim to clean up after a hot, sweaty day and to cool off. It remained unusually warm all night, and many, including Tom, got up during the night and jumped in the lake. Tom had a restless night. The insulating layer of Vaseline that wasn’t completely removed kept Tom from cooling down completely during the night.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Three


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Day One

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day One

The first day of the swim, August 24, started at Hoppy’s Drive-In, owned by Tom’s sister Tammy and her husband Dan Ellis. About one hundred people gathered to give Tom and his crew a send-off. A caravan of cars escorted them to the junction with Highway 11 a few kilometers south of town. From there the swim team continued forty kilometres west and then south down a logging road to the parking area near Beaverhouse Lake. A short portage brought them to a landing and they paddled across the lake to the Beaverhouse Ranger Station where Glenn Nolan and his wife Carrie Freschette were the rangers. They lived at the station during the summer canoe season with their two young children.

Tom had planned on the first day ending early after a relatively short ten kilometer swim. Delays in getting out of Atikokan and at the Beaverhouse landing meant that they got to the ranger station later than planned but they decided to proceed as planned. It was about 5 p.m. when Glenn, Tom Sr. and Tom left by boat for the west end of Beaverhouse Lake where the swim would officially begin. Tom was aware of the long Native history of the area and he wanted to have a tobacco ceremony to begin the swim. They had approached the Elders at Lac La Croix First Nation and they felt it would be best if Glenn Nolan, who has Native ancestry, would conduct the blessing. Glenn decided that the most appropriate place for the ceremony was at a cliff about halfway down the lake. This beautiful, lichen encrusted cliff has pictographs on it and is recognized as a place of power to the Ojibwa in the area. Glenn noted the similarity between Tom’s swim and the tradition of young Ojibwa men testing themselves with physical challenges. Tobacco was placed on a niche in the cliff near the rock paintings and Glenn gave a prayer for Tom’s safety and well-being on the swim.

From the rock paintings cliff, they continued to the portage at the west end of the lake where Tom stepped into the water and began his journey. Sheila had always told him to set himself difficult challenges and then to do his best to meet them. Tom was confident but he knew that swimming the width of Quetico Park was going to be a difficult test. Wearing a wet suit and covered in Vaseline to preserve body heat, he was on the first leg of a long swim to honor his mother. He had seven lakes, two rivers, four creeks and five portages between him and his destination of French Lake at the other end of Quetico Park.

As he swam across Beaverhouse Lake, he would stop swimming periodically for a drink of Gatorade and a carbohydrate snack while clinging to the boat. He would then continue on with steady, powerful strokes. Tom covered the ten kilometers in two hours and fifteen minutes – faster than expected. At 8 p.m. people at the ranger station saw him coming. Tom’s father jumped out of the boat to swim the final stretch with his son and Larry Gashinski and Glenn’s son Peta jumped off the dock and swam out to meet him.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Two


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park

Click here for Print Version

Introduction

On May 10, 1992, Sheila Hainey decided to go to town during her lunch hour to pick up some bedding plants for her garden. She was an avid gardener and she was concerned that if she waited until after work the plants would be sold out.Sheila worked at Quetico Park’s Nym Lake entry station and it was only fifteen minutes to Atikokan. On her way to town something unexpected happened. For reasons unknown, Sheila lost control of her car and it plowed through many guard railings. Her car hit a rock cut and Sheila was dead when help arrived.

Sheila was only fifty-two years old. Her death was devastating not only to her family but to the entire community as well. Sheila had an outgoing personality, was well known in Atikokan and was active in community affairs. Both Sheila and her husband Tom Hainey were born in Scotland. They met in Thunder Bay, Ontario where they married and they moved to nearby Atikokan when Tom took a job in the iron ore mine outside of town. Tom worked as a mechanic in the Caland Iron Ore Mine until it closed in the late 1970’s and then he opened a small business in Atikokan. They had three daughters -Tammy, Brenda and Debby – and a son Tom.

Tom Hainey decides to swim across Quetico Park

The entire Hainey family had a strong connection to Quetico Park. When the accident occurred, it was the eighteenth year that Sheila had worked in Quetico Park and her husband Tom (known as Tom Sr. after the birth of their son) had also worked at French Lake as well. All the Hainey children learned to swim at the beach at French Lake and had gone on numerous canoe trips in Quetico.

After the tragic death of his mother the previous summer, Tom decided that something should be done to honour his mother and that it should be done in Quetico Park, a place she loved. Every summer, hundreds of people paddle their canoes and kayaks across Quetico Provincial Park. Whether you choose to go from east to west or north to south, it is about eighty kilometres of paddling and portaging to make the traverse. Tom Hainey grew up just a few kilometres north of the park in Atikokan, Ontario, and having taken many canoe trips in Quetico Park, canoeing across the park would have been an easy trip for him. Tom Hainey, however, decided to do something more innovative.

He chose to swim. Tom had been a highly successful competitive swimmer who had won gold medals in both national and international events. Tom decided that using his swimming ability to swim across Quetico would be a challenging and innovative way to honour his mother. In addition to people leisurely paddling across the park, canoeists had raced from Ely, Minnesota across the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) and Quetico Park to Atikokan, Ontario in the 1960’s. Winter enthusiasts have also skied and snowshoed the length of the park. As far as Tom could determine, no one had swum across Quetico Park.

The Hainey family decided to call the swim “Breaking the Barrier” in honour of Sheila’s conviction that no barrier should go unchallenged. Swimming eighty kilometres across a wilderness park is a huge challenge and Tom knew he had to prepare diligently for this daunting swim. He had been a very successful competitive swimmer, but those events were conducted in an indoor pool. He was now going to be swimming in lakes and coping with cold water, wind and waves. In preparation, he swam over 180 km on lakes near Atikokan. Tom is a strong swimmer and he needed to swim at a fast pace if he was going to cross Quetico Park in days rather than weeks. No one he knew had the stamina to swim with him at a fast pace for hours at a stretch but when he swam there was always someone in a boat alongside him. He usually swam alone but sometimes he was joined in the water by his father or a friend and they would swim with him for as long as they could.

Whether Tom swam across the park from south to north or east to west, the distance would be about the same either way. Since most of the large lakes in Quetico Park are oriented east/west, there would be less portaging and a higher percentage of time in the water if he swam the width of the park. He decided to swim from Beaverhouse Lake at the northwestern edge of the park to French Lake near the northeastern edge. Tom felt it was fitting that his swim would end at the lake where he learned to swim and where there was a new barrier-free trail. When Tom knew that the swim was going to include French and Pickerel Lakes, he knew he should conduct practice swims on these lakes. Since no motors are allowed in Quetico Park, he would paddle with others across French Lake and on to the middle of Pickerel Lake. He would then get a good workout by swimming the long, open expanse of one of the longest lakes in Quetico Park and end his swim at French Lake.

Although primarily known for its canoeing, Quetico Park also has a small campground and a Visitor Centre at French Lake in the northeast corner of the park. In 1991, the management of Quetico Park had decided to build a barrier free access trail along the Pickerel River that would start near the French Lake Visitor Centre. Jay Leather, Quetico Park Superintendent at the time, said that “The idea of establishing a barrier-free trail grew from the more basic notion of wanting to create some kind of natural link between drop-in visitors to the pavilion and the rest of the Park. An accessible boardwalk, with viewing pod and rest stops, would accommodate any visitor to the pavilion that might come off the highway.” After Sheila’s tragic death someone on the park staff suggested that the trail be named after Sheila and once that proposal was raised the idea was enthusiastically supported by all. Jay Leather then told the Hainey family that Quetico Park wanted to name the barrier-free trail at French Lake after Sheila Hainey and dedicate the trail to her.

The Swim

A person swimming across a wilderness park requires a lot of support and Dave Maynard was the person in charge of making things go smoothly. Dave was the Assistant Quetico Park Superintendent and had worked for many years on portage crew in the park. In addition to having an intimate knowledge of the park, Dave had worked with Sheila, and was a good friend of Tom’s. The support team was composed of a mixture of friends, family and a two-person medical team. Dave found that it wasn’t difficult to bring people on board who were willing to give five summer days to assist Tom in his swim – the difficulty was in limiting the number of participants.

Map of Quetico Park swim

Map of Quetico Park swim

 

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day One


This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.

Shirley Peruniak: Quetico Park Naturalist

Originally published June 10th 2004, revised January 25, 2010

Shirley Peruniak: Quetico Park Naturalist

Shirley Peruniak: Quetico Park Naturalist

With the opening of Highway 11 from Thunder Bay to Atikokan in 1956, there was, for the first time, road access to the northern part of Quetico Park. One of the people who drove that road and started a canoe trip at French Lake that summer was a young woman named Shirley Peruniak. That canoe trip was the beginning of a love affair with Quetico that is still going strong today.

Shirley officially retired sixteen years ago after nineteen years as a Quetico Park naturalist. Fortunately for the park, even though she has retired, her ongoing quest to explore and gather information about Quetico continues. Her research into Quetico’s past culminated in the publication of Quetico Provincial Park: An Illustrated History in 2000.

Dave Elder, a former Quetico Park superintendent, calls Shirley the “heart and soul of Quetico”. Everybody who knows Shirley would agree with this assessment of her. She has definitely poured her heart and soul into her work in Quetico and her impact on co-workers in the park and park visitors has been profound.
Continue reading ‘Shirley Peruniak: Quetico Park Naturalist’

Quetico Park: Twelve Thousand Years in the Making – A Century of Protection

Quetico celebrated its 100th Anniversary last year. Quetico was originally set aside in 1909 as the Quetico Forest Reserve, became a Provincial Park in 1913, logging was banned in 1972 and it was declared a wilderness park in 1978. Quetico is characterized by towering cliffs, rocky islands and sandy beaches in a watery landscape of clear water lakes, rivers, creeks and bogs. These compelling attributes that attract canoeists to Quetico are primarily the results of the actions of glacial ice and glacial meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age. 

Silver Falls at dusk the day after ice-out in 2008.

 

Continue reading ‘Quetico Park: Twelve Thousand Years in the Making – A Century of Protection’

Excerpts from chapters in Quetico: Near to Natures Heart.

Prelude (excerpt)

QUETICO — ONE HUNDRETH ANNIVERSARY
OF A “MAGIC LAND”

In 1909, Ernest Oberholtzer, a pioneer in preserving the Quetico-Superior region, made a canoe trip in Quetico with his Ojibwa friend Billy Magee. They saw moose almost every day; they were intrigued by the pictographs they encountered; they marvelled at the beauty of Rebecca Falls and Sue Falls; and they saw large stands of old pine, including a white pine on Jean Lake that they estimated to be one and one-half metres (five feet) in diameter. This was Oberholtzer’s first extensive trip into the Quetico-Superior region and the experience inspired him to dedicate his life to preserving its wilderness character.

As Oberholtzer and Magee zigzagged across Quetico, in addition to the wondrous scenery and wildlife, they found many examples of human impact on the landscape. They saw foundations for the Hudson Bay Company post on the Pickerel Lake to Dore Lake portage, dams on the Maligne and Knife rivers, a logging camp on the Knife River, and a trading post on Basswood Lake. They also talked to rangers patrolling for poachers and putting out fires. And on numerous occasions they encountered Ojibwa people. During their journey they noticed pole structures for spearing sturgeon on the Namakan River; saw cedar strips drying for baskets and bear pelts hanging on racks at Lac La Croix; stayed on a site where birchbark canoes were made on Poohbah Lake; and came upon an Ojibwa couple in a birchbark canoe using a blanket for a sail on Kawnipi Lake.

Recalling his trip years later, Oberholtzer recalled that Quetico in 1909 was such a special place that the Indians felt “that there is a spiritual power back of it all.” He noted that “it was no wonder that they had traditions and felt spirits in there, it had a spirituality about its appearance, you felt you were in kind of a magic land.”

Native peoples have a long history in Quetico. Over twelve thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age, Palaeo-Indians moved into the area. They were followed by a series of Native cultures culminating with the Sioux, Cree, and, finally, the Ojibwa, who inhabited the area when the first white settlers arrived. Those settlers, some of whom remained in the Quetico-Superior, were part of a diverse group of people that began traversing this terrain in the 1600s: European explorers searching for the Pacific Ocean, voyageurs transporting trade goods and furs, and surveyors and geologists paving the way for settling the area west of Lake Superior. As well, Grey Nuns travelling to Winnipeg in 1844 to set up a school; the 1870 Wolseley expedition to quell the Riel Rebellion in Manitoba; settlers heading west along the Dawson Route; and trappers, park rangers, poachers, timber cruisers, loggers, and miners all comprise just a small sample of those who have moved along Quetico’s waterways after the arrival of the Europeans.

One hundred years after Quetico was first set aside, we walk many of these same portages and pitch our tents on the same campsites where everyone from Paleo-Indians to Oberholtzer and Magee spent the night. We are fortunate that Quetico was protected early enough that its combination of a glorious, mainly undisturbed, landscape and its long and varied human history still retains the magic that Oberholtzer found in 1909.

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Chapter Two (excerpt)

PALAEO-INDIANS:
FIRST EXPLORERS OF THE QUETCIO-SUPERIOR

The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior area encountered a landscape rubbed raw by glacial ice, witnessed glaciers calving into an inland sea, and crossed a landscape devoid of trees.1 The earth was recovering from an ice age and a massive continental glacier was melting and receding northward. These first explorers, known as Palaeo-Indians, entered a landscape that had recently been populated by vigorous, cold-adapted plants and animals. They were following herds of barren-ground caribou that grazed on succulent tundra plants. In the southern part of the Quetico-Superior area, woolly mammoths and mastodons may also have been prey for these highly mobile big-game hunters who had the technology and skills to thrive in a changing and often hostile, environment.

Since the continental glacier was receding, much of the area was flooded by glacial meltwater that formed glacial Lake Agassiz. The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior region probably came into the higher elevation areas in the eastern part of the BWCAW and moved north into the eastern part of Quetico Park. As the glacier continued to recede and the water level of Lake Agassiz dropped, they then moved into the rest of the area.

The Palaeo-Indians entered this new land as members of small groups that were essentially extended families. Because their prey was mobile, they had to move quickly and often. They also had to find plants for food and medicine, build shelters, make and repair clothing, find stone for tools, and care for the young, the sick, and the elderly as they travelled. Since they were the first explorers of this region, there were no maps, no guides, and no one to ask for advice as to what lay ahead. They experienced the joys and terrors of entering a fresh, new, unexplored land. The information they needed was carried in their heads and they relied on their companions and their collective know-how for survival. They were intrepid explorers of the first magnitude, but neither their names nor the time of their arrival is known.

Exploration and Imagination

Douglas Preston, an American author who has written extensively about North America’s past,
has noted: Sometime during the last Ice Age, a seemingly trivial event took place, one that would change human history forever: a human being first set foot in the new world. We do not know where this person came from, or why, or where the first footfall landed on the New World. Unlike the first man to walk on the moon, the unknown pioneer who made this giant step for mankind was probably not aware of doing anything significant at all, perhaps just taking one more weary stride on a long tramp across the frozen tundra, searching for game. But in that moment, a Garden of Eden of vastness and splendor fell to our species. It would be the last inhabitable area of earth to be occupied by human beings. Not until we colonize the stars will an event of comparable significance take place.

The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior area were a continuation of the exploration of a part of North America just released from the glacier. Since we don’t know the time, the location, or the names of the first explorers of this magnificent part of North America, there is a tendency to minimize the significance of what they did or even ignore them completely. While we rightly celebrate the accomplishments of Pierre Radisson, Jacques de Noyen, Sieur de la Vérendrye, Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, David Thompson, and other Europeans who explored a land new to them, but one that had been inhabited for thousands of years, we overlook those who came first. I find it exhilarating to be able to travel over portages and sleep on campsites that were used by the first people to enter this area. When paddling on Pickerel Lake, imagine what it would have been like when Lake Agassiz stretched all the way to the prairies and tundra grasses grew in abundance along the shore. Curlews were flying overhead and barrenground caribou travelled along a moraine where red pine and Jack pine now flourish. Palaeo-Indians gathered around a small campfire eating arctic hare and cattail stew seasoned with wild ginger while retelling their grandfathers’ stories of woolly mammoths and huge wolves.

For thousands of years, the descendents of these Palaeo-Indians called the Quetico-Superior region home and sought plants for their medicinal value; caribou, berries, whitefish, moose, and wild rice for food; stone outcrops for tools; wood for dwellings, atlatls, and arrow shafts; and birchbark for containers and canoes. Although twelve thousand years of Native people living off the land ensures that there aren’t many places where no one has been, Quetico is still a land that invites exploration. The joy is in having such a magnificent place to explore. It is always exciting to see a moose feeding in the shallows, discover an osprey nest on a seldom-visited lake, find a calypso orchid, or gaze in wonder at pictographs that hint of an earlier and strikingly different time. Every portage leads to new possibilities. For over forty years I have marvelled at discovering places and objects in Quetico that have been seen by many others — but are new to me.

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Chapter Eleven (excerpt)

THE ORCHID AND THE FUNGUS:
SYMBIOTIC PARTNERS

While portaging my canoe across a flat, rocky portion of the Silver Falls portage between Cache Bay and Saganagons Lake, I looked down and noticed an unusual, multicoloured flower growing just inches from the edge of the trail. Although not far from the descent to Saganagons Lake, I welcomed an excuse to put the canoe down, rest for a moment, and examine the flower that had caught my attention. To my amazement it was a Calypso orchid, an elusive plant I had been searching for for many years. Having always looked in swamps and wet areas where I thought orchids should grow, I was astonished to find one growing in a dry, relatively barren area where hundreds of people must have nearly stepped on it. The combination of small size and relative rarity makes the Calypso orchid a difficult plant to find in Quetico. Distinguished by its vivid colouring and intriguing shape, it is also known as the fairy slipper orchid. The plant is only a few inches tall, but the small flower is simply stunning.

My fascination with orchids and symbiotic relationships began when I saw that Calypso orchid unexpectedly growing along the Silver Falls portage. I couldn’t help but wonder why this orchid was growing in such an unlikely place and why there was just one. Since orchids are primarily tropical plants, there had to be something special occurring to allow this plant, and orchids in general, to grow in cold northern forests.

A Bit of the Tropics in the Quetico-Superior

Orchids are not only sexy and beautiful, they are also a clear and dramatic case of plants that are totally dependent on fungi for their very survival. The symbiosis between orchids and soil fungi makes it possible for plants that are more at home in the hot, moist conditions in the tropics to grow in the Quetico-Superior.

Although orchids require fungi for seed germination, the “infection” by the fungi is apparently greater for northern orchids than for tropical ones. These plants with tiny seeds and intricate, showy blooms need all the help they can get to successfully live so far north. It is the symbiotic interaction between a plant and a fungus that makes it possible for canoeists to see the Calypso orchid, a migrant from the tropics, growing in Quetico beneath boreal trees such as black spruce and Jack pine. As the human impact on the landscape continues to increase, plants that require undisturbed habitats and have other specific needs will become more dependent on wilderness areas such as Quetico Park and the BWCAW for their continued existence.

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Chapter Sixteen (excerpt)

TAILS BENEATH THE SNOW:
LIFE IN THE PUKAK

Geothermal Heat and a Blanket of Snow

For large mammals, including humans, deep snow is a hindrance to travel and survival. When the snow is deep, animals deplete valuable energy resources finding food and avoiding predators. Occasionally, extreme winters can have devastating effects on wildlife. During the winter of 1995–96, exceptionally deep snow caused the populations of white-tailed deer to drop dramatically in both northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. That winter, even moose, whose long, stilt-like legs make them well adapted to moving through deep drifts, were dragging their bellies in the snow.

In contrast, deep snow is beneficial for most small mammals. For chipmunks, mice, shrews, and voles, a major threat to their surviving the winter is the lack of sufficient snow rather than too much. Snow actually provides a refuge for them. The small size of these mammals makes them very susceptible to the cold. Hypothermia and freezing to death are constant threats and they have to find a way to avoid the cold if they are to survive the long winters in the Quetico-Superior region. Small mammals use leaf mold, pine needles, and other decaying vegetation as insulation when the temperature plummets. They can also utilize rotting stumps and tangles of downed limbs and branches for both insulation and protection and can burrow into the soil. Snow, however, offers the best protection for these small creatures. Living under frozen flakes seems like an unlikely way to avoid the cold, but snow is actually a very good insulator. Acting as a blanket over the earth, the snow keeps the ground level habitat of the pukak at a liveable temperature.

Fluffy, falling snow is comprised of over 90 percent air and even snow on the ground can contain as much as 70 percent air. It is the air trapped between the crystals that make snow a good insulator. The blanket of snow traps the heat radiating up from deep in the earth and also insulates the ground from the cold air above the snow. When there is no snow, or insufficient snow, the ground heat is lost into the atmosphere.

The amount of snow needed to keep the soil surface temperature near freezing even in the coldest weather — called the heimal threshold — depends on the outside temperature and how packed-down the snow has become. Researchers have found that the snow depth required to reach the heimal threshold varies from twenty to thirty centimeters (eight to twelve inches), depending on the amount of compaction. Quetico Park usually has snow of this depth by late November or early December, but in some winters that depth isn’t reached until much later. When the snow reaches this depth, the temperature of the ground layer stabilizes within a few degrees of freezing, regardless of the temperature of the outside air. The warmth that is constantly radiating from deep within the earth slowly decomposes and sublimates the snow crystals at the base of the snow pack. A latticework of ice columns and openings appears and the naturally occurring openings caused by ground vegetation and leaf litter are enlarged.

The network of openings that make up the pukak forms where there are sufficient herbs and other small plants to keep some of the snow from coming in contact with the ground. This causes small openings or cavities that are added to and enlarged by heat coming up from the ground. Pukak layers vary considerably, depending on the habitat and the conditions as the snow accumulates. A mowed lawn will have virtually no pukak, but most areas with undisturbed vegetation will have a pukak layer as long as there is at least twenty centimetres of snow. Where there is little or no vegetation, and there are many such places in Quetico, no pukak layer forms regardless of the depth of snow. Areas with bedrock at the surface, boulder-strewn shorelines, and the ice surface of ponds and lakes are examples of such places in Quetico where the pukak doesn’t form, regardless of snow depth.

The Mouse and the Moose

Large, bulky creatures, such as humans, are oblivious to the vibrant, thriving communities that live under the snow. An intact web of life — where animals are killed and new life is created — occurs in the vibrant micro-environment under a mantle of snow. In a chapter entitled “Coming of the Snow,” Sigurd Olson lyrically described the pukak world beneath his snowshoes as a “jungle of grassy roots and stems, tiny mountains of sphagnum, forests of heather, the whole interwoven with thousands of twisting burrows of meadow mice.… Theirs was a world removed, an intricate winter community, self-sufficient and well organized.”

The small mammals in the Quetico-Superior area are able to survive, and even thrive, during our long harsh winters by using snow to their advantage. They evade the extreme mid-winter cold by using snow as a blanket, and the earth as a constant source of low heat. They live in an unexpected, surreal environment and have replaced the bitter wind and extreme cold with confined spaces, dim light and constant coolness. When the snow is deep, the moose and the mouse live in the same woods but in very different worlds.


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Quetico: Near to Natures Heart (cover)The book is available at many local bookstores in Ontario and Minnesota. The book is available in Canada from Chapters.Indigo online store or Amazon.ca.

In the United States, the book can be ordered from a variety of sources including Piragis Boundary Waters Catalog, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Also available as an ebook at http://www.amazon.com/Quetico-Near-Natures-Heart-ebook/dp/B004DNWMHY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1330523445&sr=1-1

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Bob & Leone Hayes: A Quetico Romance

In the spring of 1942, sixteen-year-old Bob Hayes landed at the Bayley Bay Ranger station on Basswood Lake. Years later, he remembers thinking that “I thought I was descending into the ultimate paradise.” Since he was coming from Beaverhouse Lake, where he had worked on a walleye spawning crew, he already knew that working and living in Quetico Park was a perfect fit for a young man interested in the outdoors. He had become quickly infatuated with Quetico, and he soon found out that across the lake was an attraction that proved to be even stronger than Quetico.

Oscar-and-Marie-Johnson

Oscar and Marie Johnson

Leone Johnson, who was also sixteen in 1942, spent her summers working at Johnson Brother’s Fishing Camp, which was owned and built by her father Oscar Johnson and his brother Bill. It was located west of Rice Bay on the American side of the lake almost directly south of the Bayley Bay Ranger Station. Leone’s family has a long history on Basswood Lake. Her father, Oscar Johnson, fished commercially on Pipestone Bay in the 1920’s and he started Johnson Brother’s Fishing Camp with his brother Bill in 1925. The camp, the second one on Basswood Lake, was composed of a main lodge and five cabins. It appealed to serious fishermen and its reputation spread quickly by word of mouth and they never had to advertise. The fishing camp was a family business and Leone worked long hours and had a variety of jobs. Oscar and Bill ran the resort until they sold to the government in 1953 when Basswood resorts were being bought out to create the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Although Bob’s days were busy with his duties as a Park Ranger, he commonly had time in the evenings to pursue his own interests. Bob was fortunate that both the supervisors he had at Bayley Bay, George Armstrong and Oscar Frederickson, took a liking to him and were willing to assist him in any way they could. For example, on Bob’s first evening on Basswood Lake, George Armstrong took him across Bayley Bay to meet the young women who worked at Johnson Brothers Fishing Camp.

He quickly became smitten with the sparkly-eyed brunette who worked behind the counter. Bob recalls that they were soon “exchanging our life stories, which doesn’t take long when you are sixteen”. Both Bob and Leone recall an “instant chemistry” and they exchanged rings during that summer that “passed all too quickly.”

Bob went back to work on the spawning crew at Beaverhouse Lake in the spring of 1943, but this time he was in charge of the operation. He was just seventeen years old and to make his job more challenging, his twenty-one year old brother was a member of the crew. He went to Pickerel Lake for the first part of the summer where he patrolled for poachers with George Armstrong. Bob had corresponded with Leone over the winter and he was extremely happy to end up back on Basswood Lake for the remainder of the summer. There were many twenty-minute paddles or five-minute boat rides across Bayley Bay during the summers of 1942 and 1943. Bob spent the fall at Cabin 16 on Basswood Lake where he shared the Park Ranger duties with Jess Valley, an experienced Park Ranger. He was able to visit Leone on weekends, traveling by canoe in the fall and by snowshoe in the winter.

In the fall of 1943, World War II was becoming very intense and Bob felt a strong obligation to do his part. Since he was not yet eighteen, he had to get written permission from his parents to join the military. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in January of 1944 and quickly came to the realization that he might not survive the war. Since he was unsure of his fate and didn’t want Leone to wait, possibly in vain, for his return, he reluctantly wrote her a ‘Dear Jane’ letter. After his military training, he was sent to England where he served as a flight engineer on a Lancaster Bomber on bombing missions over Germany. He was discharged in the spring of 1946 and quickly discovered that Leone had taken his letter seriously and had married and had a baby.

Bob was anxious about returning to Quetico Park but, for obvious reasons, he had no desire to go back to Basswood Lake. He spent the summer working at Lac La Croix but was assigned to work with Jess Valley again at Cabin 16 on Basswood Lake in the fall. He agreed to go since he knew Jess and enjoyed working with him. When the plane landed on Basswood Lake, Bob learned that Leone’s husband, who was only 26 years old, had just died from congestive heart failure. Bob went to see Leone that fall and they both looked forward to seeing more of each other the next summer on Basswood Lake.

In the spring of 1947, Leone was back working at her parents’ resort near Rice Bay on Basswood Lake and Bob was glad to be back on Bayley Bay working for Oscar Frederickson. Bob describes Oscar as one of the most unforgettable people that he has ever met. He was a man with “a gruff exterior, but a heart of gold.” During the summer, park authorities decided to transfer Bob to Lac La Croix. Oscar Frederickson, however, had other ideas. Bob recalls that Oscar radioed park headquarters, although the plane was already in the air, and growled, “I want Hayes to stay here and here he’s going to stay.” Oscar was highly respected by park officials and his opinion carried a lot of weight. The plane landed, but flew back without Bob.

Bob and Leone saw a lot of each other during the rest of the summer and, to no one’s surprise, decided to get married. Bob quit the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests (the precursor of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) in January of 1948 and married Leone in May of 1948. They moved to Emo, Ontario where Bob worked as a heavy equipment operator for the Department of Highways. They had a daughter, Suzie, two years later. They were content living in Emo, but they both missed northern Minnesota with its proximity to Basswood Lake and felt they would be happier in Winton. Bob contacted the U. S. Consulate in Winnipeg and had his visa in just six weeks. They moved to Winton and Bob was quickly hired to work at the Winton Hydro Electric dam on Fall Lake. He worked there for 31 years and retired in 1985 at the age of 59.

Bob’s Early History

Manitou Rapids Reserve in 1932

Manitou Rapids Reserve in 1932

Bob was born in 1926 and grew up on the Manitou Rapids Reserve, which is located on the north shore of the Rainy River west of Fort Francis, Ontario. His father was the agricultural agent of the Reserve and he was the first white baby born on the Reserve which is now part of the Rainy River First Nation. The Manitou Mounds, situated along the shore of the Rainy River, are the largest group of burial mounds in Canada. This site, known in Ojibwa as Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, or “place of the long rapids”, was declared a site of national historic significance in 1970. It is now the home of a terrific Interpretive Centre that presents local history from a First Nations point of view.

Bob and his two brothers had an idyllic childhood growing up along the Rainy River. It must have been similar to my childhood in southern Minnesota except he was fishing for walleyes instead of bullheads and playing “cowboys and Indians” with real Indians.

Leone’s Early History

Leone Johnson on Basswood Lake summer 1942

Leone Johnson on Basswood Lake summer 1942

Leone was born in Ely, Minnesota and lived in Winton until her family moved back to Ely when she was in the sixth grade. She had a typical northern Minnesota childhood except she spent her summers working at her parents resort on Basswood Lake. She started when she was very young and her responsibilities increased as she got older. She cleaned cabins, worked in the kitchen, cut firewood with a cross cut saw, cleaned outhouses, put up ice, and pumped water up to the tank. A small generator powered the resort and it was turned off, and the lights went out, at 10 p.m.

She also had opportunities to get out onto the lake. The resort had launches and, on occasion, she was able to ride on trips to pick up or drop off guests at Four Mile Portage or even take excursions into the Canadian side of the lake to drop canoeists off at the beginning of their trips. Each morning, Leone used to take a boat to Leo Chosa’s store at Prairie Portage to get minnows. Her friends from Ely and Winton also came up to visit. Of course, she also got time off to take part in those pleasant activities, such as fishing and swimming, that go with living on the lake.

Basswood Lake in the 1940’s

The Basswood Lake that Bob landed on in 1942 was a very different place from what it is today. The attributes of good fishing, abundant wildlife and berries attracted Native People to Basswood Lake and there is archaeological evidence for at least 9,000 years of use of the lake. These same attributes also attracted tourists to the area. A 45 lb 9 oz Northern Pike was caught on Basswood Lake in 1929 and this remains the Minnesota state record. There is good northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleye fishing virtually everywhere on Basswood and lake trout thrive in the cold, clear deep waters of most of the Canadian side of the lake, with Bayley Bay and North Bay being especially renown trout waters. The shallow water sections, located primarily in the southern part of the lake, are home to bluegills and crappies. The attraction of Basswood Lake, undoubtedly one of the most productive and diverse lakes in the entire Boundary Waters region, continues to this day.

The lake was a busy tourist area and there were twenty resorts operating on Basswood Lake in 1942. Some were small resorts that catered to families and provided opportunities for fishing, canoeing, swimming and relaxation, while others primarily catered to fisherman. A few, such as Basswood Lodge, were family resorts that featured luxurious dining on gourmet foods in addition to hot showers and flush toilets. During the day, guests were fishing on the lake, primarily in motorboats, or remained at the resorts to swim or simply relax. In addition to the resorts, houseboats were also present on the lake. Although the lake was busy during the day, people returned to the lodges for the night and campsites were used less than they are now. Although motorboats were more common on the lake than canoes during the resort years on Basswood, people were also or using canoes at the resorts and going on canoe trips.

Although most people and supplies got to Basswood Lake via the motorized Four Mile Portage, some arrived by air. Ely was the hub for float planes flying to resorts in the area as well as flying fishermen and canoeists to their destinations. Ely was the largest inland seaplane base in North America in 1946. In 1949, height restrictions for flying over the BWCAW were put in place. The restrictions on flying, and other restrictions, led to a demise of the resorts. This was a period of intense debate, acrimonious charges and numerous court battles between those favoring motor use and wilderness advocates. Many decades have passed, the debates continue and the wounds have still not completely healed.

In contrast to today, logging was occurring on Basswood in the 1940’s. Logging was being carried out on the Canadian side of Basswood Lake, with newly initiated 300 foot shoreline restrictions, in 1942 and 1943. J. M. Matheiu had two logging camps on Basswood Lake, one on Sunday Bay and another on Canadian Point.

Logging on the American side of Basswood began in 1895. Accessible lumber declined in the early 1920’s and the two large mills in Winton, Minnesota that were the destination for much of the lumber, Swallow and Hopkins and St. Croix, closed in 1922 and 1923. Logging continued near Basswood Lake at a slower pace in the 1930’s. Frank Hubachek bought land on shore of Basswood when he heard that large pines along the shore were scheduled for logging in 1937. This became the site of the Basswood Wilderness Research station.

Bob’s Work History in Quetico Park

Bob on Agnes Lake in Quetico Park

Bob on Agnes Lake in Quetico Park

Bob saw a lot of Quetico Park in the relatively short time he worked there. As mentioned previously, in addition to working out of the Bayley Bay and Cabin 16 ranger stations on Basswood Lake, he also worked on Beaverhouse, Lac La Croix, and Pickerel Lake. Gerry Payne, his partner on Pickerel Lake, told Shan Walshe that Bob Hayes was “the best partner a fellow could ask for because he was easy to get along with and could handle himself in the bush.”

Bob guided for twenty-one years and for fourteen years he was head guide for the Trail Riders, a group associated with the American Forestry Association. He did all his guiding in Quetico Park. On his trips, the emphasis was on traveling and seeing as much of Quetico Park as possible. Fishing was an important part of the trip, but they fished mainly for food. They would stop when they had enough for a meal of fresh fish. Bob told his clients that he wasn’t mad at the fish and they wouldn’t keep catching fish they didn’t need.

Conversing around the campfire was an important part of the trip. Bob is a good storyteller with lots of canoeing and camping experiences to relate. When a young guide asked him for advice on guiding, Bob told him, somewhat in jest, to “take lots of whiskey”. In the spirit of Bill Magie, Bob Cary, Sigurd Olson and other north woods guides, many stories were told around the campfire. I’m sure that many people ended their trips with Bob with stories, not only of their own exploits, but also tales that they heard from Bob Hayes.

His favourite starting point for a trip was Powell Lake. They would fly to Powell Lake and come down Clay Creek, now called Greenwood Creek, and the Wawiag River to Kawnipi Lake. Lower water levels and warmer temperatures in recent years have made Greenwood Creek paddleable only in the spring. From Kawa Bay of Kawnipi there are numerous routes to take back to Moose Lake or Fall Lake. Some of his other favourite spots in Quetico are McEwen, McIntyre and Robinson Lakes. Bob would pick a route that best suited his clients’ interests and experience.

Recent Years

Bob and Leone Hayes

Bob and Leone Hayes

Bob and Leone have known each other for over sixty-four years and have been married for fifty-eight years. It all began on Basswood Lake and they have maintained their interest in Basswood Lake and Quetico Park. In a letter to the Atikokan Progress and the Fort Francis Times regarding the possible closure of the southern entry stations to Quetico Park. Bob wrote “the BWCAW is a magnificent area but somehow it lacks the magic of Quetico. In my opinion, the Quetico is the finest piece of ground and water on the planet.”

They live in Winton, Minnesota, just a short distance from where they met on Basswood Lake. They have often returned to camp on Basswood Lake – first by themselves, then with children and finally with grandchildren. They have remained active and when Leone’s daughter and daughter-in-law go for walks with Leone they both mention that have a hard time keeping up to her. Bob has had knee surgery, or he, also, would also be hard to keep up with. Leone is also known throughout Winton for taking her homemade soup to people who aren’t feeling well.

Bob says that he “left the employ of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests to marry a woman I couldn’t live without – I still can’t.” The pair that Shan Walshe called ” the nicest couple I know” are thriving in their home not far from where they met on Basswood Lake.

Robinsons of Souris River Canoes

Here’s to You, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson

Most people come to Atikokan, Ontario to paddle canoes; the Robinson’s, however, came to Atikokan to build them. They also happily put their own canoes to use by paddling the numerous lakes, rivers and creeks that are found on this portion of the Canadian shield. Atikokan is justifiably known as “Canoeing Capitol of Canada”. In addition to Quetico Park, it has the White Otter Wilderness area to the north and numerous lakes and river systems accessible by logging road or by float plane.

The Souris River Wilderness 18 is one of many canoe designs that Souris River makes.

Keith and Arlene Robinson started the Souris River Canoe Company along the banks of the Souris River in southern Manitoba in 1985. The Souris River is thought to be based on a Sioux name that means “foaming river” because of the foam that forms below small rapids and rocks. The early French explorers and traders translated “foaming river” into French and called it the Mousse River because “mousse” means “foam” in French. Then, in an example of multicultural miscommunication, English speakers evidently simply changed Mousse River into Mouse River. In the final twist in this tale of the mouse, later French immigrants then converted the Mouse River into Souris River. “Souris” means “mouse” in French and it may have been called Mouse River because it is a narrow river that twists and turns like the tail of a mouse as it meanders through the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Manitoba.

Some people, including the Robinson’s, prefer a different explanation of the name. “Missouri” means “large canoe” in one of the Sioux dialects and “souri” means “small canoe”. They named their company Souris River Canoes since they were making canoes in Souris, Manitoba, along the banks of the Souris River. The recreational canoes they built were “small canoes” compared to the voyageur and other trade canoes that traveled down the Souris River in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

Prior to building canoes, Keith and Arlene lived in Snow Lake Manitoba. Keith worked as an environmental scientist at a copper-zinc mine and Arlene taught music in the high school. During this time they both did a lot of canoeing on the numerous lakes that surround Snow Lake. They honeymooned on the Grassy River south of Snow Lake and continued to use canoes to explore the rivers and lakes that surrounded them in northern Manitoba. They got involved in marathon canoe racing in the early 1980’s. While racing, they got to know Everett Crozier, a canoe builder from Wisconsin and were inspired to start a canoe business.

With the enthusiasm and brashness of youth, they moved to Souris, Manitoba and started Souris River Canoes. Keith used a mold he obtained from Everett, a man who was also influential in some of the designs of Wenonah canoes, and the first canoes Keith made were based on the designs of Eugene Jenson. Keith decided to incorporate some of his own ideas and began designing his own canoes while in Souris, Manitoba. The market for canoes in Manitoba was limited so he could only sell about thirty-five canoes a year when they were in Souris.

It was almost impossible to break into the United States and southern Ontario markets from Souris, Manitoba so Keith and Arlene decided to look for a location that was closer to the markets for their canoes and that also had other attributes they were looking for. They were hoping to find a small town that had both good canoeing and cross country skiing that would also be a good place to raise a family. Since they wanted to stay in the northern lake country, they began their search in Kenora and Fort Francis and worked their way east. They finally knew they were in the right area when they noticed that there were more vehicles traveling down Highway 11 near Atikokan with canoes on top than there were pulling boat trailers.

Arlene heard about Quetico Park when she was in high school in Souris, Manitoba and she and Keith took their first canoe trip in Quetico in 1991. Started at French Lake with their two young children, Josh and Beth, and paddled into Pickerel Lake. They were amazed at the number and size of the sand beaches on Pickerel Lake, something not common in northern Manitoba. The combination of sand beaches, exposed bedrock, and large trees was very appealing to them. The dynamic crossroads of the northern boreal forest and deciduous forest in a landscape that is almost half water is what makes Pickerel Lake and the rest of the boundary waters area so appealing to the Robinson’s and other outdoor enthusiasts like them.

The Robinson’s moved to Atikokan in 1992 and set up their canoe business in an empty building not far from the Atikokan River. They moved from a town named after a mouse to one named after caribou and they hoped that their canoe business would have a similar growth spurt. Their company has grown in size, but it has remained a family business. They are still working out of the building they bought in 1992.

Wayne Docking, a retired teacher who has worked for Keith for five years, told me that Keith is “dedicated to designing and building the best composite, ultra-light, wilderness tripping canoe in North America.” He learned the basics of making composite canoes from Everett Crozier and has gone on to design the Quetico (in three lengths), the Wilderness 18, and a solo canoe called the Tranquility.

Keith and Arlene canoe with Josh and Beth every summer in Quetico. The entry at Lerome Lake is a favorite of theirs since it takes them into Cirrus Lake, a large, three-section lake with little human activity. It is also gives them access to Quetico Lake, one of their favorite lakes. Quetico Lake with its big, dramatic cliffs, pictographs, sand beaches and rocky, secluded bays is one of the most diverse lakes in Quetico.

Josh and Keith Robinson paddling near Atikokan, Ontario.

One of their most memorable trips occurred when their kids were young. They flew into Clay Lake and paddled down Greenwood Creek into Quetico Park. Just as they entered the park, they paddled around one of the many sharp turns in the creek and got a close up look at a large bull moose. The kids, who were only 3 and 5 years old, went wild when they saw the moose. What a wonderful introduction to Quetico! Keith and Arlene had some hair-raising moments going across the bigger lakes Josh and Beth would move around at times when they should have stayed still. Keith said that, on one especially windy day, they were close to tipping. The experience contributed to his grey hair and the experience provided inspiration to design the Quetico canoe.

They zig-zagged through the northeastern part of the park and ended the trip crossing Nym Lake as the full moon was rising on their right as the sun was setting to their left. They were mesmerized by the beautiful, but very different, colours of the moonrise and the sunset on opposite sides of the canoe. The outdoor adventures with their parents has had a lasting effect on their children. Josh and Beth both participated in the Atikokan High School outdoor education program called ‘Outers’ and are active canoeists, hikers and cross country skiers.

Both Keith and Arlene are avid cross country skiers and they felt that the potential for cross country skiing was an important factor in deciding where they were going to re-locate. There were no developed ski trails when they moved to Atikokan in 1992. Arlene was instrumental in starting “Beaten Path Nordic Trails” ski club and was president for a number of years. The club has grown steadily and now has over 100 members and 35 kilometres of groomed trails.

To help with fund-raising for cross country skiing in northwestern Ontario, the Robinson’s have provided canoes for an annual fund raisers for the Thunder Bay National Team Development Centre, an organization that that trains promising, young cross country skiers, and the Kamview Nordic Centre in Thunder Bay. The money raised has been put to good use ñ three former Thunder Bay Development Team cross country skiers participated in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Beaten Paths hosts a race in February called the Chocolate Cup, where all participants get chocolate. Winners also receive a trophy made from chocolate and many skiers undoubtedly eagerly consume their chocolate while recovering from the race. The lure of chocolate and the opportunity to ski the Atikokan trails attracts many people from Thunder Bay and the surrounding area.

The ski club also hosts two events that take place in Quetico Park. Their goal is to get more people to experience Quetico Park in the winter. The Sawmill Lake Tour, which had its inaugural run in January of 2006, covers 24 kilometres and follows old logging roads from the 1960’s and early 1970’s in the northeast corner of the park. This tour is used as a fund-raiser for the Friends of Quetico and skiers who participate in this tour can make donations to the Friends of Quetico.

The biggest event of the year is the Cross Quetico Lakes Tour that was held this year on March 18. The route is from Nym Lake to Batchewaung Lake and then down the length of Pickerel Lake to French Lake. This year will be the fifth annual tour. The long trip, which is on lakes and portages rather than groomed trails, has had participants ranging in age from ten to seventy. The tour starts at 7:00 a.m. and the goal is to finish by 4:30 p.m. All four of the Robinsons have completed the tour at least once. Chris Stromberg, who organizes the tour and has been a member of the Quetico Park Portage Crew for the last two summers wrote the following about the 2003 trip: “The Cross Quetico Lakes Tour doesn’t include numbered bibs or stop watches. It is a group tour that brings you back to the roots of cross country skiing, across frozen lakes and portages. I can’t think of a better place to hold the event than Quetico Provincial Park. It is a tough tour of 35 or 45 kilometres but skiers have an entire day to finish it. It is by no means a race and there are even a couple of rest stops along the way inviting people to relax around a fire, with coffee provided.”

Keith and Arlene have been active in The Friends of Quetico and Keith served as the chairman from 1998 to 2003. Keith’s main accomplishment while serving as chair was the publication of “Quetico Provincial Park: An Illustrated History” by Shirley Peruniak. Although Keith is no longer chairman, he continues to make important contributions. The current chairman, John Soghighan, told me “Keith leads from any seat at the table with adroit insights, gentle reminders and subtle humor.” It isn’t surprising that Keith and Arlene have been active in the Friends of Quetico during their years in Atikokan since Quetico Park was the biggest factor in attracting them to the area.

The Robinsons have demonstrated a keen interest in the future of the boundary waters area that goes far beyond making canoes. Robin Reilly, the Quetico Park superintendent, stated that “Keith and Arlene are consistently looking for ways to promote the park and encourage sound environmental management.” With their involvement in environmental concerns and other community activities, they are carrying on the wonderful tradition of many of the entrepreneurs on both sides of the border in the boundary waters area. They are concerned with more than economics and with more than just canoeing. They simply strive to make their communities, and therefore the entire area, a better place to live.

You can visit their website at  http://www.sourisriver.com

Joe and Vera Meany: 26 Years in Quetico

Vera and Joe Meany at Lac la Croix Ranger Station in 1978.

Vera and Joe Meany at Lac la Croix Ranger Station in 1978.

Joe and Vera Meany are now retired in their home along a river about 50 km from Atikokan. For 26 years, from 1971 to 1996, they were the Quetico Park Rangers at the Ranger Station on Lac la Croix. During their years in Quetico, the Meanys built a strong reputation as extremely competent and helpful Park Rangers. In addition to selling park permits and fishing licenses, they also enthusiastically carried out other tasks associated with their job. These included rescuing people who had swamped their canoes and removing innumerable fishhooks embedded in fingers, Joe and Vera Meany at Lac La Croix Ranger Stationlegs, and other, more tender parts of the anatomy. Joe removed so many fishhooks that he was known around Lac la Croix as “Dr. Hook.”

Their many summers in Quetico aided them in advising canoeists about the rapids on the nearby Maligne River and other areas where problems can be encountered. They were also reliable sources of information on fishing, wildlife, pictographs and campsites. One of the real benefits of having Ranger Stations on the edge of Quetico, with knowledgeable people like Joe and Vera manning them, is the opportunity it gives canoeists to find out the current conditions of portages, the places where bears are causing problems, and other up-to-date and accurate information.

A canoe trip into Quetico can be a daunting adventure, especially for novice canoeists. Through their efforts, the Meanys made Quetico canoe trips a safer and more enjoyable experience for thousands of people. Because of the assistance they gave to Boy Scouts from Omaha, Nebraska and other Nebraska canoeists, they were made honourary citizens of Omaha, Nebraska by the town’s mayor.

Joe took a round-about route to Quetico Park. He grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ontario and started working as a diamond driller when he was fourteen. He celebrated his fifteenth birthday working in Pickle Crow and worked in underground mines in Kirkland Lake until he was old enough to join the army. He served 5 years in the army, including eighteen months in Korea.

Vera grew up on Prince Edward Island and later moved to Toronto where she worked with Joe’s sister. She and Joe were married in 1955 and in 1960 they moved to Atikokan where Joe worked in the iron ore mine. Since arriving in Atikokan, their lives have revolved around canoeing. Joe became one of Canada’s top canoe racers and in 1963 teamed with former Atikokanite, Eugene Tetreault, to win the Canadian Professional Championships. Joe won it again the following year with his brother, Don Meany. Don, also an Atikokan resident, now makes bent-shaft canoe paddles with his son, Spencer, that many consider to be among the best in the world.

To help mark Canada’s centennial in 1967, Joe was part of a three-man crew that paddled a kayak from Edmonton to Montreal in forty days. The race, however, that still puts a glint in his eye and animation in his body is the 1964 Atikokan to Ely race. In 1964, Joe and Eugene Tetreault won the marathon race from Ely, Minnesota to Atikokan, and after a days rest, back to Ely. This race, which passed through the centre of Quetico Park, was one of the premier canoe races in the 1960’s. Ralph Sawyer called it the “ultimate canoe race” because it required day and night paddling, crossing a wilderness of lakes and rivers, and had numerous portages.

In 1964, the race involved paddling from Shagawa Lake in Ely to Atikokan, resting a day in Atikokan, and then returning to Ely. Racers could take any route they wanted but there was a route that virtually everyone used because it was believed to be the fastest route. Joe and Eugene, however, decided to shorten the normal route by cutting portages through a low, boggy area between Alice and Fern Lake. A combination of terrific paddling and their shorter but more difficult route brought Tetrault and Meany the victory in the 1964 race.

The legacy of that race lives on in Quetico. The southern portage they cut was named “Bonne Homme” Portage (French for “good man”) after Eugene Tetrault. The northern portage that leads to Fern Lake was named “Sauvage Portage” after Joe Meany. It was originally named “Maux Jit Sauvage” but it was shortened to “Sauvage Portage”. Unfortunately, only the name was changed, the portage remains as long as ever. Both portages are difficult to find, very long, bug-infested, and are knee deep in mud in places. There is a joy, however, in completing them and they do connect two beautiful lakes with seldom visited, scenic, small lakes between the two portages.

Joe has never lost his desire to paddle long distance, and in 1985 he kayaked with his friend Keith Burand around the southern half of Quetico. They paddled non-stop for 34 hours to cover the 200 kilometres and 27 portages. The legacy of Joe’s racing days is still evident in the paddling style of the portage crew who work in Quetico. The Quetico Park portage crew use the “hut stroke”. They steer by switching sides instead of using the j-stroke and, consequently, all their effort goes into forward motion. Many paddlers in Quetico recognize the portage crew from a distance because of their distinctive, efficient paddling style. Joe’s love of canoeing, love of Quetico, and his job as a Quetico Park Ranger were a perfect match.

Vera was always the main office worker, she kept the office running smoothly and efficiently. She also played a central role in helping others, my wife and I included, in dealing with the complexities of running a Ranger Station. She and Joe also raised two sons, and one former portage crew member told me that “Vera became a second mother to me”. A whole generation of young men and women working in Quetico as volunteers, Junior Rangers and portage crew describe Vera as their surrogate mother during their summers in the park. Providing meals for portage crew, volunteers, Junior Rangers and canoeists who happened to stop by when meals were being served, goes well beyond the job description for park station attendants. Vera, however, was always generous with her time, her advice and her food.

Vera was also renowned for her home remedies for a wide variety of ailments. These came in especially handy when a child living at a ranger station got sick and a doctor, or even medical advice, was hard to come by. Over the summers the Meanys were at Lac la Croix, Quetico Rangers got recipes for cough syrup made from onion juice, a cream for rash made from corn starch and lard, and a remedy for canker sores. One summer when we were at the Beaverhouse Ranger Station, we ran out of shampoo and Vera called us with a recipe for shampoo made out of mayonnaise, lemon juice, and dish detergent.

Joe and Vera made numerous improvements to the Lac la Croix Ranger Station and the surrounding structures. Their main addition was a log building made from red pine logs that Joe obtained from a variety of locations on Lac la Croix. Joe got permission to build a woodshed from park authorities and he then proceeded to build a log building with an attached woodshed. During the time Joe and Vera were at Lac la Croix, it was known as “Ranger Hall”. It functioned as a museum complete with a large number of photos and articles relevant to the history of the park.

Many canoeists made a point of seeing the Meany’s at Lac la Croix every summer. If they didn’t start or end their trip at Lac la Croix, they planned their trip with a stop to see the Meany’s as part of their itinerary. At Cache Bay and Prairie Portage Ranger Stations we periodically met people who were paddling long distances across Canada. It always seemed that they had either just had an extended visit with Joe and Vera or were on their way to see them because someone along the route had told them that the Rangers at Lac la Croix were people they “absolutely” had to see to make their trip complete.

Vera and Joe always had a large, well-used coffee pot and over the years many canoeists had a hot cup of coffee while describing aspects of their canoe trip while waiting for a towboat or a flight back to Crane lake. Joe and Vera especially enjoyed talking to people at the end of their trips when the days and nights in the park have mellowed people and made them eager to share their experiences. As to the multitudes of cups of coffee that have been consumed, Joe said that he had found that “when you give a cup, you get a pot back”.

When I talked to Joe and Vera the year before they retired, they wrote back and stated, “We take each year as it comes now, each year brings us closer to the time when we will have to leave the Lac la Croix station where we have spent so many memorable summers and have met so many wonderful people from around the world. It is our hope that after we leave the coffee pot will always be on, and the lamp in the window will remain lit for the inconvenienced visitor. We will miss the Ontario Ranger girls, the portage crew paddling in doing the “hut stroke” and the tow boats and aircraft bringing in new and old visitors to Quetico. But that time is not quite yet.”

Vera and Joe Meany at their house near Atikokan in July, 2006.

In 1996, their reign at the Lac la Croix Ranger station came to an end. The Meanys became part of the fabric of Quetico during their twenty four years at Lac la Croix. They are part of the Park Ranger tradition that includes people such as Bill Darby, Ted Dettbarn, Lloyd Rawn, Art Madsen, Bob and Evelyn Halliday, Mike and Priscilla O’Brien, Webb and Berniece Hyatt, and numerous others. The Quetico wilderness is indeed composed of men and women that are a match for the magnificent landscape they inhabit.

Devil’s Crater – Portal to the Past

Devil's crater at the top of the image with the canyon shown below it. (photo by Leif Nelson)

My first glimpse of Devil’s Crater took my breath away. I was shooting aerial photographs of outpost cabins for a local outfitter when the pilot and I decided to take a detour to look at an unusually shaped lake off in the distance. In a few

 minutes, the small, almost perfectly circular lake was below us. Surrounded by towering cliffs, it lay in the midst of a gently undulating topography filled with the bogs, creeks, small lakes and boreal forest that are typical of northwestern Ontario. In an otherwise relatively flat landscape, the crater’s presence, along with the kilometre-long canyon just southeast of it, was a mystery.

I knew immediately that I had to see this remarkable formation up close. My son Leif, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, and my good friend Al Maddox, a retired teacher and experienced canoeist, were eager to accompany me. Devil’s Crater is located some 150 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. There are no roads within 20kilometres of the crater and canyon, so we had Huron Air from Armstrong, Ontario fly us in. We landed on a small lake connected to the canyon via a narrow creek.

In the last days of June, we found ourselves crowded into a single canoe, heading down the creek toward the crater. Before long, however, a combination of shallow water and boulders made further progress impossible. Despite much searching, we could not find a portage, although we knew that two other groups from Thunder Bay had reached the crater by this route during the last few years. In 1997, Bill Ostrum, the owner-operator of a Thunder Bay company that designs and makes packs, had paddled to the small lake we had landed on and attempted to walk to the crater along the side of the canyon.Travel was very difficult, because a forest fire in the 1980’s resulted in dense growth of jack pine and a lot of blowdown, and he turned back. Julian Holenstein, an Environmental Consultant for the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, was told about the crater by Bill Ostrum and the following summer, he led a group of four people to the crater. The next summer, Bill and Anne Ostrum also reached the crater. These two groups, and undoubtedly others, had reached Devil’s Crater by the same general route that we were now using.We couldn’t, however, find any evidence of the portage that they used to bypass the unpaddleable section of the creek so we quickly put in a “minimalist” portage that was roughly parallel to the creek and avoided wet areas and large rocks. If this route gets used very much the portage will undoubtedly be rerouted somewhat but it served well for our purposes.

In addition to the summer excursions, Volker Kromm, a forester with Abitibi Consolidated, and two companions made a trip by snowshoes into the crater in the winter of 2003-2004 to do some ice climbing. They successfully climbed both waterfalls that enter into the crater and took core samples of red pine, growing near their northern limit, that grow along the edge of the crater.

In addition, Native People have undoubtedly visited Devil’s Crater numerous times over thousands of years. Although the canyon and crater wouldn’t have had much appeal for hunting or fishing, a site this unusual has an appeal that goes beyond just obtaining resources.The crater is also part of a trapline for a member of the Gull Bay First Nation on Lake Nipigon and First Nations communities in the area have a long history of visiting the crater.

The view as we paddled up the canyon towards the crater.

We had a beautiful paddle up the canyon. The day was cool and sunny, and there was enough wind to keep the bugs to a minimum. Along the canyon shoreline were large rocks and scree slopes at the base of the cliffs. In other spots, the majestic cliffs soared directly out of the dark waters, in which we could see the shimmering reflections of our surroundings.

A study of the vegetation in the nearby Ottertooth Conservation Reserve was conducted by Al Harris and Robert Foster. They found that the large forest fire in 1980 resulted in a landscape dominated by young jack pine mixed with trembling aspen and white birch. There are also isolated small stands of red and white pine, both of which are near the northern edge of their range.Some old stands of black spruce and cedar are found in the swamps. On the west-facing cliffs along some of the lakes they found three arctic alpine plants, Nahanni oak fern, smooth woodsia and showy locoweed, that are rare plant species in Ontario. North facing cliffs at Ottertooth Canyon support an exceptionally rich community of arctic alpine plants including Snowy Arnica, Appalachian Firmoss, Northern Woodsia and Northern Goldenrod. Although no botanical surveys have yet been completed at Devil’s Crater, its similar cliffs probably also provide habitat for some interesting species.

We were eager to fish as we had heard that brook trout might be present. We fished for a short time as we paddled up the canyon and managed to catch a northern pike but no trout. I found that, as gorgeous as the canyon was, it was difficult not to keep looking ahead trying to catch a glimpse of our destination: Devil’s Crater.

The only obstacles we encountered while paddling up the canyon towards the crater were a two-metre high rock wall that we had to portage over near the beginning of the canyon and a short section near the end of the canyon closest to the crater where it became too shallow to paddle the canoe.We then paddled across a large pool which marks the end of the canyon.

A large amount of scree coming down from both sides of the canyon forms a plug across the narrow opening between the canyon and the crater. We made our campsite along the edge of a grassy area through which the narrow creek coming out of the crater meanders. Our spot was small and uneven; nevertheless we pitched our tent on one of the few dry openings in preparation for a two-night stay. (**We found out after our trip that camping is not permitted in some of the Nature Reserves. There isn’t, or at least wasn’t at the time of our trip, notice of a camping restriction for Pantagruel Creek Nature Reserve on the Ontario Parks website. However, to be on the safe side, contact the Park Superintendent before entering an Ontario Park.)

We were hoping to portage along the base of the scree and reach the crater with relative ease. As the designated photographer, I went ahead and climbed partway up the side of the crater. Leif and Al had the much harder task of hauling the canoe over a great jumble of boulders while weaving it through trees and shrubs – so much for the “relative ease” plan. From my perch I could see two small waterfalls cascading down the cliffs that formed the far wall of the crater – the only visible sources of water entering Devil’s Crater.

 

Leif and Al in our canoe inside Devil's Crater.

Despite what the lake’s name would suggest, a meteorite did not create Devil’s Crater. The impressive force responsible for the crater’s creation, and the canyon stretching out below it, was the combination of the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and the overflow of glacial meltwater from Lake Agassiz, which was then located just west of the crater. The flow from the two small waterfalls that now enter the canyon is a mere fraction of the torrent that carved this feature into the landscape over 9,000 years ago. Thousands of years of erosion have also softened the crater and canyon. Falling rock combined with lichen growth make it difficult to determine just how much water must have surged through the kilometer-long canyon when Lake Agassiz overflowed. The events that produced Devil’s Crater not only altered the landscape significantly, but may well have been the catalyst for climate change and influenced the migratory patterns of the first humans who lived in this area.

Approximately 18,000 years ago, the air temperatures of the earth began to rise as the planet emerged from the most recent Ice Age. Massive continental glaciers, including the Laurentide Ice Sheet that had blanketed most of central North America were slowly retreating. The water pouring out from the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet – which covered much of what is now Ontario, Manitoba and parts of Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Minnesota and North Dakota – produced enormous lakes. One such lake was Lake Agassiz, which was formed to the south of the retreating glacier. Lake Agassiz extended over more than 1.5 million square kilometers, an area larger than all the present Great Lakes combined. As the lake slowly shifted northward following the retreat of the massive glacier, its shape, size and position changed significantly. Over a 5,000 year period, various outlets routed the lake water in three different directions: south through what is now the Mississippi River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, east through the Great Lakes and what is now the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean, and finally north to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean.

Changes in the direction of the outflow of Lake Agassiz would have significant consequences. It has been generally accepted that the eastern overflow of Lake Agassiz initiated some 11,000 years ago resulted in a tremendous amount of glacial melt-water surging through the Great Lakes basins into the North Atlantic Ocean. The influx of fresh water essentially diverted ocean currents in the North Atlantic, resulting in a significant cooling of the climate in North America and Europe.This 1000-year cooling period, referred to as the Younger Dryas, is characterized by the lowering of average air temperatures around the North Atlantic at a time when global temperatures were increasing.

Phil Kor, the Senior Conservation Geologist for Ontario Parks who has researched this topic, says, “Although recent research is challenging this theory, as alternate routing of the meltwater from glacial Lake Agassiz is being considered, the influx of an enormous volume of fresh water into the North Atlantic from the Great Lakes basins still seems to be the best explanation for changing ocean currents and the climate in North America and northern Europe.”

As Lake Agassiz continued its northward shift, the land behind it slowly rebounded as the great weight of the glacier withdrew. Water from Lake Agassiz flowed south when ice occupied the Superior Basin. Then it flowed again to the east, this time through Lake Nipigon and on to Lake Superior and the North Atlantic Ocean. Large volumes of water flowed through channels that today are shallow streams and creeks.

As the glacier receded, new outlets formed in a northerly pattern. The water ran through this new area with such tremendous force that it carved Devil’s Crater, along with the canyon southeast of it, out of the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. In creating this deep gash in the landscape, the rushing water worked in tandem with local geology. The crater and the canyon probably began as a fault in the bedrock. The immense overflow eroded the bedrock along the fault to create the crater and the canyon.

Eventually, the continued retreat of the glacier and the rebounding land surface behind it opened up new outlets north of Devil’s Crater. The outflow through Devil’s Crater would have lasted only a short time, anywhere from a few years to a couple of hundred years. James Teller, professor of geology at the University of Manitoba and a leading researcher on Lake Agassiz overflows, describes the crater as “a paleoplunge basin, formed by Lake Agassiz overflow that eroded the less resistant diabase on the down-flow side of the fault contact with the resistant granite”. Devil’s Crater is a dramatic example of what moving water can accomplish in a relatively short period of time.

From inside the crater, the view is incredible. Two-thirds of the crater’s edge is a curved wall of dramatic, lichen-encrusted cliffs that rise more than 70 meters directly out of the water. When seen from a canoe on the lake, the cliff walls seem even higher because the lake is only about 200 metres in diameter. The remaining portion of the crater’s edge is a steep slope composed primarily of large boulders. Al noted that, from some locations, there didn’t seem to be any way out other than scaling the cliffs. Near the middle of the lake, we tied a rock on the end of a rope and lowered it to the bottom in an attempt to estimate the depth of the water. We were astounded to find that our primitive measuring device indicated that this tiny lake is approximately 70 metres deep.

Devil's Crater is a reminder of the power of water and its ability to alter the landscape.

When traveling into and out of the crater, we were paddling near the bottom of a spillway formed more than 9,000 years ago. What is now a canyon was once filled with water that moved with enough force to enlarge a crack in the bedrock and form a chasm. The area we traversed on our way into the crater, which is now a mass of car-sized boulders, was once submerged beneath at least 50 metres of rushing water. Today, large white and red pine trees grow along the canyon and near the edge of Devil’s Crater.

Researchers, primarily Dr. James Teller and associates at the University of Manitoba have found that the terrific amount of water that once tore through this area left behind remnants of riverbeds, broad, flat deposits of sand and gravel, and giant boulders at various locations between Lake Agassiz and Lake Nipigon. In recognition of the significance of these area, the Pantagruel Creek Provincial Nature Reserve and the Ottertooth Conservation Reserve where created. Ottertooth Canyon, Devil’s Crater and Mink Bridge Portage Falls on the Kopka River were all created by glacial melt water surging out of Lake Agassiz towards the Lake Nipigon basin and on towards the Atlantic Ocean.Bill Ostrom has noted that probably nowhere else in Ontario are there three such spectacular landforms so close together.

Lichens, herbs, grasses and shrubs quickly populated the newly exposed land. Large, cold-adapted grazing animals such as woolly mammoths, muskox and barren-ground caribou thrived. So did sabretoothed tigers and “dire” wolves, which grew to one and a half times the size of timber wolves. The most intimidating predator of all, human beings, may also have been present. Palaeoindians, the first people known to have inhabited this region, probably followed the large mammals in their northerly migration.

However, by the time Lake Agassiz overflowed into Devil’s Crater, the woolly mammoths, sabretoothed tigers and dire wolves were extinct, but caribou continued to be a main source of food for Palaeoindians. In 1957, a caribou antler recovered from the bottom of Steep Rock Lake near Atikokan, Ontario, was determined, through carbon dating, to be nearly 10,000 years old. William Ross, a retired regional archaeologist for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation for the Thunder Bay region who is generally regarded as a leading authority on the archaeology of northwestern Ontario, told us that “There is a strong possibility that Palaeoindians were witnesses to the dramatic overflow of Lake Agassiz. The water surging down the east side of Lake Agassiz may have prevented these early peoples from expanding northward until the waters subsided enough that a crossing to the north could be safely made.”

Floating in our canoe on the small, placid lake inside the crater, we were in awe of what occurred here at the end of the last Ice Age. The crater’s two small waterfalls are reminders that just over 9,000 years ago, an outpouring of water draining a lake that stretched all the way to Saskatchewan careened and swirled through here with devastating power to form Devil’s Crater and the canyon below it. These formations are portals to the past. They remind us how, in an instant of geological time, a piece of Ontario’s terrain was dramatically altered.

This article was written by Jon Nelson and Leif Nelson.  Leif Nelson was a graduate student in the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Waterloo when this article was written. He now works for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Life Under the Ice

During the winter, all life under the ice has to adapt to conditions that are strikingly different from those found in the summer. In the summer, our lakes are layered with the warmest water on top and the coldest on the bottom. As you descend, the temperature slowly decreases until you reach the thermocline where there is a sharp drop in temperature. This invisible line separates the more productive waters that contain microscopic plants called phytoplankton from the much colder, darker areas below.

Ice on a Northern Ontario lake.

ice_on_northern_lakeThe thermocline is just below the surface in the spring and fall and drops to twenty-five feet or more in midsummer. Lake trout, burbot and a few other species of fish spend almost all their time below the thermocline and just enter the warmer waters for short periods to feed. They move up and down depending on the thermocline and even come to the surface when the temperature of the lake water is the same everywhere in late fall and early spring.

In winter, the water beneath the ice is also layered, but it is the opposite of what is found in the summer. This, and the unusual properties of ice, is due to the bizarre chemistry of water. Water is the most dense at 39 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) and consequently the water at the bottom of deep lakes is this temperature regardless of the season. This causes a topsy-turvey world where the warmest water in the winter is on the bottom (39 F.) and the coldest water is just below the ice (32 F.) at the top. Consequently, a lake trout swimming at a depth of 80 feet in the summer is in the coldest water in the lake and the same lake trout swimming at the same depth in winter is still at the same 39 temperature but is now in the warmest water in the lake.

Anyone who has forgotten to add sufficient antifreeze to a vehicle or didn’t drain the plumbing at their cabin is well aware that ice expands as it freezes. Water is highly unusual in expanding, rather than contracting, as it goes from a liquid to a solid. If it acted like most compounds, ice would sink as it formed, and ice would be continuously forming at the surface and dropping to the bottom. This would cause lakes to freeze from the bottom up. Much ice would form and sink to the bottom on a -35 night in January.

Virtually all our lakes, with the possible exception of the deepest, largest lakes, would be solid ice by March. This would obviously be devastating to life in our lakes. Since ice forms on the top of the water, it puts an insulating layer between the water and the colder air above. This greatly slows the formation of more ice. The accumulation of snow on top of the ice adds another, and better, insulating layer. Even with these insulating layers, we can still get over three feet of ice. This is a strong testimony to the severity and length of our winters.

Ice and snow protect from the cold, but they also greatly decrease the amount of light entering the water. The combination of low light levels and low temperatures causes photosynthesis to virtually stop in the winter. Phytoplankton levels drop dramatically and, therefore, the production of oxygen virtually comes to a halt. The amount of oxygen that is in the water at freeze-up has to last until the ice-cover melts in the spring.

Fortunately, the colder water is, the more oxygen it holds. Once again the chemistry of water works to the advantage of living things. Water obtains oxygen from two main sources: the photosynthetic organisms growing in it (phytoplankton, algae and photosynthetic bacteria), and from direct contact with the air. Both contact with the air and light levels are dramatically reduced at freeze-up and consequently very little oxygen is added to water during the winter. This means that for almost half the year, fish and other oxygen-using organisms, have to get by on the oxygen present when the ice forms.

Since photosynthesis virtually stops, no more food is being made and the amount of food under the ice dwindles during the winter. It’s no wonder that many organisms cope with these conditions by slowing their metabolism. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians that overwinter under the ice survive by hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds or shallow bays of lakes. A frog meet its oxygen requirements by simply breathing through its skin. The skin’s large surface area allows it to remain stationary and still take up enough oxygen so it can survive a sleep of half the year.

When hibernating under the ice, the heart of a painted turtle can beat as slowly as once every eight to ten minutes.

Turtles meet their oxygen needs in a different way. They are also found at the bottom of shallow bays or ponds, but take in oxygen through their cloaca, the opening to their reproductive and excretory systems. They can do this because it is lined with a rich network of blood vessels that functions as a gill. Since lungs are specialized organs for breathing air, organisms like frogs and turtles have adapted other ways of absorbing oxygen from water.

Many microscopic organisms, such protozoa and rotifers, form protective shells known as cysts and remain in an inactive state until the water warms up in the spring. Water fleas and other small crustaceans produce thick walled eggs in late autumn and these survive through the winter and hatch in the spring.

Many fish also slow their metabolism in the winter. Species that spend most of the time in the warmer parts of the lake in the summer, such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and walleyes, become much less active in colder water. This significantly lowers their requirements for both food and oxygen. They won’t increase their activity until the water warms in the spring.

Fish that spend most of the summer in the cold water below the thermocline continue to be active throughout the winter. Lake trout are the best-known species of fish that stays active all winter. They thrive in cold water and travel freely throughout the lake in the winter. Their metabolism remains high and they have to continue to seek out and catch minnows and small fish all winter long. Although the cold does not bother lake trout, the decreasing amounts of both its prey and oxygen levels can be a problem.

It would be interesting to know how lake trout hunt in the depths of the lake where there is little or no light. The deeper you go in the water, the less light penetrates. Even in very clear water lakes, light only penetrates to fifty feet or so, and below that it slowly fades to pitch black. Lake trout are caught by people fishing at depths where virtually no light penetrates. Even at shallow depths in winter, they have to capture prey in the very low light that penetrates through the snow and ice. How they accomplish this is one of the many unknowns concerning the winter ecology of our lakes.

Another fascinating cold-water species is the burbot. This unusual looking fish, also known as eelpout or lawyer, is a fresh water relative of the codfish. Burbot have been caught, along with lake trout, in nets at depths of over 400 feet in Lake Superior. They are active all winter and are often caught by people ice-fishing. Their eel-like shape, elongated fins and smooth skin probably account for their being discarded on the ice in spite of their excellent taste.

Whitefish and their smaller relative, ciscoes, are other fish that are active under the ice. Both are usually found below the thermocline in the summer, but often enter warmer water to feed. Ciscoes can be seen surfacing on still days in the summer, but can also be found at more than a hundred feet. Their wide-ranging travels are responsible for their being reported to be important summer food sources for both lake trout and burbot in deep water and loons near the surface.

The conditions faced by organisms beneath the ice is similar in many ways to those faced by organisms at the bottom of the snow pack, in the pukak. The temperatures are constantly just a few degrees from the freezing point, it is either pitch black or with dim, filtered light, and the food source is constantly dwindling. Just like organisms in the pukak, they have met these conditions in diverse and inovative ways.

It is a real challenge for cold blooded animals like fish, reptiles and amphibians to survive the cold conditions under the ice, but there are also a few mammals that enter the water under the ice. A thick coat is obviously needed to survive our winters and animals that enter the water need coats that are waterproof as well as exceptionally warm. Water siphons heat from the body much more rapidly than air and it is extremely difficult for mammals to maintain their body temperature in cold water.

Beavers and muskrats spend most of the winter in their lodges huddled together for warmth. The insides of beaver lodges, insulated with mud and sticks, is many degrees warmer than the outside air. They spend much time grooming and keeping their fur well oiled. They have to enter the water to retrieve food that they have stored in a food cache next to their lodge. Even short immersions in the icy-cold water are enough to put a strain on their systems.

The contrast between the somber, grey winter morning and the activity beneath the ice is captured in this combination photo/painting. Painting by Jennifer Garrett, photo by Marie Nelson.

Beaver and muskrat have an unusual metabolic tactic that increases the time that they can spend in the water under the ice. They elevate their body temperature slightly just prior to entering the water and this gives them a few more minutes before their body temperature drops too far. Researchers have also shown that muskrats obtain oxygen from air bubbles trapped under the ice and presumably beavers do the same. Beaver and muskrat also have physiological adaptions that decrease the amount of heat loss when they are in cold water. In their feet and at the base of their tails they have a network of capillaries where the arterial blood flowing toward the extremities passes in close contact with the blood in the veins returning from the extremities. The arteries give up heat to the colder blood returning from the feet and tail. This warms the blood returning to the body and cools the blood going to the extremities. This allows them to maintain a higher core body temperature and their cooler extremeties lose less heat to the water.

Land animals, such as lynx and bobcat, also have a heat exchange system in their feet. This allows them to lose less heat to the cold snow they stand and walk on. They carefully avoid, however, getting their feet wet in the winter. Most other mammals also avoid getting wet, since wet fur loses most of its insulating value. There are exceptions: both mink and otter enter the water in the winter to hunt their prey. When I snowshoe along the French River in the northeast corner of Quetico, I often see otter tracks along the river. Their tracks clearly show that they swim for stretches in the open water and come out and travel along the shore where the river is iced over. I am amazed that an animal can come out of the water in sub-freezing temperatures and travel over land in a wet fur coat. Two special adaptions enable them to do so. They have extremely dense and oily underfur that is both warm and sheds water. They also have outer guard hairs that are hollow for additional insulation, and that interlock with each other to protect the underfur.

Otters have a streamlined body that, with extremely short ears, short legs and heavily furred tail, is also designed to minimize heat loss. Because of their short legs, they have to plow through the snow on land and leave a distinctive trough in their wake. It seems appropriate that this toboggan-shaped animal sides on its belly whenever possible.

The track of an Otter along the French River in Quetico Park in January.

The late biologist Olaus Murie, in his interesting and informative book “A Field Guide to Animal Tracks” recalled that he “…was snowshoeing up a small stream when I spied movement in the snowy stream bank up ahead. I realized that it was an otter, and the next moment it slid down the bank. Another one appeared, clambered up the bank and slid down. A third appeared from the hole in the ice, and for several moments I watched these frolicsome animals, climbing, sliding, climbing, sliding, over and over again – until all disappeared under the ice. Their playtime was over, and they all went on their way beneath the ice, as so often they do.”

I have never observed otters playing in the winter but I have seen otter slides in various places in Quetico. There is usually one into the water below the rapids from Quetico to Beaverhouse Lake. Otter slide down the hill adjacent to the portage directly into the fast water that remains ice-free year around.

The docks at both the Canada Customs and the Ranger Station at Prairie Portage were always covered with otter droppings when we arrived in the spring the years we were rangers at Prairie Portage. The open water below the rapids is a prime location for otter to hunt fish and crayfish in the winter. They obviously found the docks a convenient place to come out of the water, bask in the sun and relieve themselves. Beaver and muskrat huddle together for warmth in insulated lodges when they return from the water. Otters, on the other hand, are mainly solitary creatures in the winter and don’t have a primary lodge to return to. They evidently commonly use old beaver lodges for dwellings. They must consume a great deal of food in the winter in order to maintain their active lifestyle and stay warm.

To do this they seek out prey both in open water and under the ice all winter long. They have successfully adapted to our extreme winter conditions both in and out of the water by taking an extremely active and aggressive approach to winter.

Rapids and Waterfalls in Quetico

Silver Falls at end of Saganaga Lake

The high number of rapids and waterfalls in Quetico Park is primarily due to the large amount of exposed bedrock combined with numerous creeks and rivers. Three images of these rapids and waterfalls are shown below.

A Gallery of images of waterfalls and rapids in northwestern Ontario is found in the Photography section. A number of long exposure images of water is found in the “fast water, slowly” Gallery.

Silver Falls is located at the northwest end of Saganagons Lake . Silver Falls is one of the highest and most beautiful falls in Quetico Park and can be most appreciated from along the river below the falls since the view from the portage trail is not very good. Caution should be used when approaching these falls and the portage is found to the right of the falls. The portage, like the vast majority of those in Quetico Park, is thousands of years old and existed long before the arrival of the first Europeans. The water from Cache Bay on Saganaga Lake flows over Silver Falls on its way to Sagonagons Lake. This is the route that leads to the ‘Falls chain’ between Saganagons Lake and Kawnipi Lake.

Falls at Prairie Portage on Basswood Lake

Prairie Portage is located at the east end of Basswood Lake in Quetico Park. This small rapids/falls occurs where the water enters into the east end of Basswood Lake which is located on the southern boundary of Quetico Park. It is strange that this location is called Prairie Portage since there isn’t any indication of prairie anywhere near here today. The name evidently comes from the logging days when horses were kept in cleared fields at this site. The cleared fields have now reverted to forest and Prairie Portage no longer reminds anyone of a prairie. This busy site hasthe Canadian Ranger Station on the Ontario side and the motorized portage for Basswood Lake on the Minnesota side.

French River at dusk

This image of the French River was taken at dusk. The French River enters into French Lake near the eastern boundary of Quetico Park. The French Portage, which went from Windigoostigwan Lake to French Lake, by-passed this section of the French River which has numerous rapids. This portage, which parallels what is now Highway 11, is no longer used. There is now a hiking trail which follows along the French River to French Falls. This trail is seldom used and is particularly interesting in the fall and winter.

Falls Road Falls near Thunder Bay, Ontario

Falls Road is a rural road located southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is apparently named after a small falls that is located adjacent to the road. This photo was taken on a warm, buggy evening in late June. The long exposure, which was over a minute, gives the falls its milky appearance. The overall, blue tint to the image is due to reciprocity failure of the slide film in the long exposure.

Paddling to the McNiece Lake Pines

When I first came to the Boundary Waters I was mainly interested in going canoeing and seeing a new landscape very different from the farm country where I grew up in southern Minnesota. I kept coming back primarily because of the wildlife and it is still thrilling to see moose, wolves, otters, bald eagles, ospreys and loons. I also enjoyed seeing walleyes and lake trout, but I only sought them out when it was time to eat.

My interests expanded as I spent more time in Quetico and other people caused me to see things from a different perspective. Quetico Park has been blessed with many terrific naturalists and I was strongly influenced by Shan Walshe and Shirley Peruniak. They were both working in Quetico when Marie and I started as Park Rangers at Beaverhouse Lake in 1976. Shirley is interested in the human history of Quetico and her enthusiasm and knowledge got me hooked on wanting to learn more about Quetico’s past. Shan Walshe inspired me, along with thousands of other people with whom he came into contact, to want to learn more about plants and their role in the environment. I enjoyed learning how to identify many common plants in Quetico, but I was the most impressed with the trees, especially big, old trees. I remember being shocked to encounter cedars much larger than I thought existed on the Emerald to Plough Portage. It is also interesting to come across trees that seem out of place. The bur oak along Have A Smoke Portage and the silver maples and American elms along the levees of the Wawiag are delightfully eccentric.

Large, mature white pines on McNiece Lake.

It was, however, the sight of an entire lake surrounded by old-growth white and red pines that had the strongest impression on me. I first saw these trees about twenty years ago when I took a trip north of Prairie Portage and last summer I was determined to return to McNiece to see these trees again. That is why I was standing in line at Prairie Portage with my wife, Marie, and our friends Andy and Paula Hill waiting for the Ranger Station to open in the second week of August of last year. I recall working on the inside of that building about twenty years ago and looking out at the line forming well before 8:00. Now they open later so I guess for an August morning we were fortunate in that the line was relatively short. A light very rain was falling and we were eager to be on our way.

The paddle across Bailey Bay was hard since we were quartering into a wind that was gradually increasing. It was a nice break from paddling to do the flat, easy portage to Burke Lake. The rain increased in intensity and I could feel the water slowly wicking its way up my sleeves as I paddled. Prolonged, intense rain always finds a way down your neck and spreads out from there. I figured by the time we stopped to make camp the water moving up my arms should meet the water moving down from my neck.

We stopped for lunch at the end of the portage into North Bay at a nice protected spot where overhead trees kept most of the rain off of us. We were headed to South Lake so we were able to take advantage of the islands to provide some relief from the wind. The paddle through the lilly pads that grow in profusion in the creek leading to South Lake is always a joy. There was just enough water to allow us to keep paddling except in one place where we had to get out and walk the canoes.

One of these years I’m going to spend some time exploring West Lake but once again we just quickly passed through on our way to supper and dry clothes. Afterpaddling a short distance past the portage coming out of West Lake, Marie noticed a pair of small, pink water lilies. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a pink water lily before. We decided to find a campsite on Shade Lake and after much looking we found an unoccupied one. It hadnít stopped raining since we left Prairie Portage, so we weren’t fussy, we simply needed a site with two tent pads. Andy has guided for many years and his expertise in dealing with setting up camp and preparing supper in the rain was appreciated since I have a tendency under adverse conditions to simply eat granola bars and get in the tent. The tarp came in handy and with a fire we were able to dry ourselves and our clothes, eat a hot meal, drink hot coffee and go to bed dry and contented.

The next morning, we woke to the sound of no rain. It was a spectacular morning with blue skies, light winds and cool temperatures. I remember having trouble on a previous trip on the portage from the unnamed lake west of Shade Lake to Grey Lake. It is as confusing now as it was then. There are two beginnings and a confusing intersection about halfway across the portage. If you began on the trail farthest west then you need to take a right at the intersection. Compasses do come in handy sometimes. There are many large white pines on Grey, Armin and Yum Yum Lakes but on Shan Walshe Lake they dominate the forest. As much as Shan loved mature forests and the plants they contain he had an even greater love of wet, boggy places. I hoped that nestled in behind the pines are some interesting swamps and bogs.

The last portage to McNiece passes through large cedars and pines and some of them have very old blazes on them. On McNiece, we were fortunate to find the high rocky campsite that looks west down the lake was unoccupied. We spent two nights at this site and did some fishing and a lot of walking in the woods. After we had set up camp we talked to two people who paddled by looking for a campsite. One of them, Pat Bergman, had worked with Marie at the Outward Bound School in Ely, Minnesota in the late 1960ís.

Mature white pines are the dominant species on McNiece but there are also many mature red pines. It was heartening to see numerous younger white and red pines scattered throughout, including many just a few years old. They were especially prevalent where large trees had fallen and left an opening in the canopy that allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. White pine seedlings need a lot of sunlight in order to prosper and they are usually out-competed by balsam fir and spruce in shaded areas. Consequently, there are many balsam fir and spruce in the understory and they dominate the understory in many places.

Paula Hill admiring a very large white white pine.

We found white pines up to 3. 5 feet in diameter and there are thousands and thousands of white pine over 2. 5 feet in diameter. We were hoping to find the mother of all white pine but, more importantly, we found a healthy old-growth stand of white and red pine.

The shoreline of McNiece Lake seen through a fog filter at sunrise.

We decided to get up early on the second morning to take photos of pines in the early morning light and were extremely lucky to wake up to thick fog. What a thrill it was to paddle around the lake and take photos of giant pines appearing out of the mist. Hundreds of years ago, much of northern Minnesota and Ontario had pines like this and it was like seeing the past through a fog filter.

We didn’t spend all our time looking at old-growth.  Andy and Paula love to fish,

Andy Hill sitting around an evening campfire.

 which is terrific since all four of us love eating fish. Our days were full and we spent three glorious bug free, August evenings drinking “Quetico cocktails”, watching the sunset and solving the major world problems. It is hard to beat sharing one of the great places in the world with good friends. 

We decided to return to Basswood via Kahshapiwi , Side and Isabella Lakes. At the beginning of the portage out of McNiece Lake  we had the pleasant experience of encountering Scott Wentzell, a son-in-law of Shan Walshe. He and his brothers had started their trip at French Lake and were on their way to Shan Walshe Lake. It was surprising to encounter two groups with people that we know on a lake that is not heavily used.

Two of the portages that we did on our return trip; McNiece to Kahshapiwi and from the bottom of Side Lake southwest to an unnamed lake, made me realize that I, like the pines on McNiece Lake, may have evolved from being mature to being slightly over-mature. The first portage is simply long and has a good hill in to make sure you understand that it is a special portage. The other one must have the most brutal hill in Quetico, or at least that is the way I felt when I finally reached the top. It was good to get back to Prairie Portage, especially after once again crossing Bailey Bay quartering into a strong wind.

Looking back, McNiece Lake seems to be in the centre of a very large stand of old-growth white and red pines since the concentration of these pines increases as you approach the lake and decreases as you move away. Cliff Ahlgren in Lob Trees in the Wilderness states that this is not an illusion and it is what remains of much larger stand of pines. “By 1890, most of the stateís remaining tall pine was limited to the Arrowhead region of northeastern Minnesota, including the border lakes country. The tall pines extended in an irregular band north, east and west of Duluth. On large finger of tall pine reached into the central portion of the present BWCA, with the fingers tip ending in the Quetico, less than ten miles north of Basswood Lake. ” The finger extends a few miles north of McNiece Lake.

The decline in numbers of eastern White Pine over the last two hundred years has been astounding. At the beginning of the 1800’s, white pine was a common, and, in many places, the dominant tree species from Newfoundland in the east to the southeast corner of Manitoba in the west; and from Georgia in the south to the shores of Lake Nipigon in northern Ontario. Dr. William Carmean, professor emeritus of forestry at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, stated that ìin the early 1800ís, someone could have travelled from the St Lawrence Valley in eastern Canada all the way to the centre of the continent and virtually never been out of sight of magnificent old pines”.

Although the numbers of mature white and red pine have decreased greatly for hundreds of years, they now have many ardent and vocal supporters. The white pine, in particular, has become a symbol of the wilderness in many people’s minds. A forester for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay, Ontario has stated that “to say you are going to cut a white pine these days is about the equivelent of saying you are going to murder your mother. This is not just another species with a problem”.

Numerous studies have shown that mature white and red pines also play significant and diverse ecological roles. A study by the U. S. Forest Service showed that “when female black bears go off in search of food for their cubs, they invariably leave the cubs within a few meters of an old white pine if one is available”. Evidently the deeply fissured bark of a large white pine is the easiest for the cubs to climb if they need to avoid predators. Another study in the Superior National Forest found that approximately 80% of both bald eagles and ospreys build their nests in crowns of old white pines. They obviously seek out these old pines since less than 1% of the mature trees in the Superior National Forest are pines. Even standing dead trees play an important role in the environment. The variety of insects that infest these trees are important sources of food for woodpeckers and other birds. They also serve as nesting sites for a variety of cavity-nesting birds. 

Dead trees, such as this decaying white pine on the north side of McNiece Lake, provide habitats for numerous species of decomposers and the organisms that feed on them.

Researchers investigating the canopies of large trees in the Amazon rain forest and in the mature conifers in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have found thriving ecological communities in the canopies. They have identified new species of insects, birds, fungus and lichens. It seems inevitable that fascinating discoveries will also be found in the canopies of large stands of old-growth pines in the boreal forest also.

The pines in the McNiece Lake area survived because of their location in an area that the loggers didnít reach before the logging restrictions, and, for some reason, they havenít burned. The logging of white and red pines helped to fuel the economies of the many places, including Minnesota and Ontario, where these pines were common. Both species declined dramatically primarily because of logging but have stayed in decline for many complex reasons that include disease, silvaculture practices and disease. The dead tops on white pines are the “flag” that indicates that white pine blister rust has infected many of the white pines in Quetico and the BWCAW.

Fire can obviously destroy large stands of mature pines but it also is the force that is responsible for the success of white, red, and jack pine forests. Miron Heinselman in The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem stated that “White pine and red pine can persist without fire for up to 350 and possibly even 400 years for occasional individuals, but without a fire that creates favourable conditions for stand renewal, most stands will eventually be replaced by balsam and spruce as the old pines die.” I couldnít find any records of coring to determine the ages of the pines in the stand around McNiece. We found white pines that were over three and half feet in diameter and there are literally thousands of white pines in the stand that are over three feet in diameter. Based on ages of white pines obtained from coring data, these pines must be well over three hundred years old.

There are many red and white pines in various age classes in the understory around McNiece Lake. There are also, however, many balsam and spruce growing in the shadows of the giant pines. This appears to be a stand that is gradually becoming more diverse as the number of non-pine trees increases. On the other hand, the mature white and red pines seem to be ageing gracefully and many pines, both white and red, are in position to replace them.

It is impossible to predict how much longer the old-growth pines will dominate in the McNiece Lake area. It is a distressing to realize that in the foreseeable future, the magnificent stand of old-growth white and red pines on McNiece Lake will be gone. The trees will not be lost not to the chainsaw or the axe but to the inevitable ravages of time. I remember portaging up a long hill on the northern edge of Mack Lake on the way to Munro Lake in the eastern part of Quetico Park in 1996 and being amazed at how few trees had survived the 1995 fire. The fire raced up the hill through many old-growth white pine burning almost everything in its path. The only trees that were still alive were some of the large, old-growth white pine.

They were blackened and had fire scars along their bases but were still alive because of their thick, fire-resistant bark and branches that remained above the fire. I havenít been back since but these trees probably acted as sources of seeds to the open, nutrient rich ground below. In the past, before fire suppression was so successful, this was how a new pine forest began. William Carmean has written that “old-growth forest management involves more than merely reserving scattered old-growth forest stands. For white and red pine we must also be concerned with regenerating new pine forests, and with the recognition and protection of mid-age pine forests. These newly regenerated areas, and these mid-age forests, thus can become the old-growth forests of the future that will inevitably be naturally harvested by insects, disease and fire.” Fortunately, both Quetico and the BWCAW have stands of middle-aged white and red pines that will be the old-growth for future generations of canoeists.

In retrospect, my reasons for canoeing in Quetico haven’t changed all that much over the decades. I originally came primarily to see large birds and mammals and on the McNiece Lake trip I wanted to see large trees. What is becoming obvious, even to a slow learner like myself, is that what I am really looking for is wildlife in the larger sense: mammals, birds, amphibians, trees, orchids, lichens, and fungi in a natural setting. In Quetico we can find all of this set in a wild landscape of cliffs, waterfalls, pictographs, bogs, creeks, rivers and lakes. No wonder I keep coming back.

Lichens: Unusual Partners

It’s not hard to find lichens, you simply have to look where other forms of life find the conditions too harsh. Sheer cliff walls, the surface of large boulders, tree trunks, the branches of living and dead trees, and the shaded acidic soils under pines, are all places where lichens thrive. They have even been found on the shells of living tortoises and on exoskeletons of insects.

Lichens are able to grow in these places because they are a combination of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner. The fungus gives the lichen its overall shape and structure and produces pigments that shield its partner from ultraviolet light. These pigments are responsible for the wide variety of colors found in lichens.

The fungus also has fine but tough threads that securely attach the lichen to the surface it’s growing on. The fungus also secretes acids that break down materials into nutrients for the lichen. These acids are so strong that they break down rock into minerals that are used by the lichen.

The photosynthetic part of the lichen is usually an algae, but in some cases it is a type of photosynthetic bacteria known as cyanobacteria. The algae or cyanobacteria (the photosynthetic partners) produce the food for the lichen. Since one part of the lichen makes food by photosynthesis and the other is good at extracting nutrients, together they make a potent combination. Due to this potent combination, lichens can thrive on brances of dead trees and other unlikely places.

A variety of lichens grow on a two-inch long portion of a small branch of a dead black spruce. (Many other lichen photos can be found in the Photography section of this website)

This type of close association between two different species is known as a symbiotic relationship. Most biologists believe that both the fungus and its partner benefit from this relationship. The fungus gets food that the algae or cyanobacteria make, while the algae or cyanobacteria get a protective place to live and nutrients that the fungus extracts from its environment. Recently, biologists have discovered lichens composed of a fungus and both an algae and a cyanobacteria. A close association between two species seems unusual, but the existence of lichens composed of three different species opens up a whole new world of interactions.

Not all biologists, however, think that all the partners in these relationships benefit equally. Some propose that only the fungus benefits and that the photosynthetic partner is a captive of the fungus. Lichenologist Trevor Goward has described lichens as Afungi that have discovered agriculture.@ Many of the fungal partners appear to be unable to exist on their own, while the algae and cyanobacteria are usually able to survive by themselves. It may be that in some cases only the fungus benefits and in other cases both the fungus and its photosynthetic partner benefit.

Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is apparent that lichens can exist in places that neither of the partners can live in on their own. They are found in some of the hottest and driest places on this planet and also in some of the coldest. They are found in Antarctica where no plants or fungus exist on their own and where few bacteria can survive. These lichens simply shut down in the extreme cold of winter, but are able to start functioning again when the temperatures start to rise. Lichens are known to photosynthesize at temperatures as low as -20 Celsius (about 0 Fahrenheit).

This ability to photosynthesize at temperatures well below freezing gives lichens a huge advantage over plants in cold climates. It also allows those in areas like the Boundary Waters to begin producing food in late winter when there is still ice on the lakes and deep snow in the woods. At the other end of the growing season, lichens also extend the period for photosynthesis well into the winter.

They can also grow on a wide variety of surfaces, including man-made ones. Lichens are found on asphalt shingles, brick buildings, cement bridges and even on stained glass. A study in France showed that 16 species of lichen grew on one large old stained glass church window. The growth of lichens on stained glass is a problem on many of the old churches in Europe.

Lichens are also found in specialized natural habitats in the Boundary Waters. Those that are nitrogen-loving are found on cliff faces and boulders that regularly get splattered with bird droppings. Below bird nests and bird perches are located unusual lichens that can utilize the nutrients found in these droppings.

Vertical cliffs have many different kinds of lichens because, depending on their pitch and orientation, they have different habitats. Those lichens that require more water can be found on north-facing cliffs or areas that regularly get run-off from above. Species that can survive with very little moisture are usually found on unshaded south-facing cliffs. Only those places where rock has recently broken off, or areas of exceptional dryness, are totally devoid of lichens. Areas that have a combination of adequate light and some moisture trickling down from above are usually the richest in lichen diversity and growth.

This cliff on Ottertrack Lake is covered with a mosaic of colourful lichens.

The type of rock is also an important factor in what species of lichen grow. The cliffs on Quetico Park’s Emerald Lake are high in lime and have a very different variety of lichens than the siltstone cliffs on Knife Lake or the granite cliffs on Quetico Lake. Some of Quetico’s cliffs  have striking orange lichens, usually from the genus  Caloplaca or Xanthoria, that brighten up the lake even on the dullest of days. These bright, eye-catching lichens can be found on the Man Chain and on the high cliffs of Ottertrack Lake.

The crusty lichens that grow on cliffs, bedrock and boulders, can be found in a variety of colors. Shades of grey seem to dominate, but brown, black, white, orange, red, yellow and even blue ones can also be found. The only place I remember seeing blue lichens was on sloping bedrock at Kings Point on Basswood Lake.

The very large, scaly lichens that are commonly seen on lakeside boulders are known as “tripe desroche” or rock tripe. This lichen, like many others, can withstand long periods of hot and dry conditions. It commonly becomes dry and brittle during July and August. It then looks like large, black, lifeless, scales on the rock.

It survives these dry periods and quickly revives with the first rain. It still looks like large grey or black scabs, but is now softer to the touch. This unappealing lichen can be boiled and eaten as an emergency source of food. Survivors of airplane crashes and others who have run out of food have survived on rock tripe. The Franklin Expedition in the 1820’s subsisted for 11 days in the Canadian Arctic eating these lichens.

In addition to the crusty lichens that primarily grow on rock, there are also a wide variety of small, shrub-like lichens that grow on the ground. Some of these, known as reindeer lichens, are ash-grey in color and stand 2 to 5 inches high. They are commonly found growing in the acidic soils under black spruce and jack pine. These lichens, also known as caribou moss, are the primary source of food for caribou in the winter.

Caribou use their large hooves to dig through the snow to get to the lichens. They leave large circular depressions, known as “craters”, when they are feeding on lichens in the winter. The word caribou comes from a Micmac Indian word that means “one who digs”.

When woodland caribou occupied the Boundary Waters area they undoubtedly relied on reindeer lichens, which are fairly common in this area, for a major part of their winter diet. These caribou, who lived here just sixty years ago, were not the only large mammals to feed on lichens. Moose also eat reindeer lichens, but not nearly to the extent that caribou do.

White-tail deer also eat lichens but, like moose, apparently in relatively small amounts. The exception can be in the winter when the snow is deep and food hard to find. Deer have small hooves and, unlike caribou, are not adept at digging through snow to get at plants underneath. Some lichens, such as Old Man’s Beard, hang down from tree branches. This hair-like lichen can be well over a foot long and is commonly found on trees that are have been killed by spruce budworm.

Old Man's Beard Lichen hanging from a branch of a dead spruce tree.

Since it hangs down from branches, it is accessible even when snow is deep. Deeper snow can even make some available that the deer couldn’t reach when there was little or no snow. There is often a browse line visible, with Old Man’s Beard found only above where the deer can reach. Although important as a survival food, Old Man’s Beard is evidently not heavily utilized when other foods are available.

Years ago I was told that Old Man’s Beard made a tasty snack when walking in the bush. I found that it has a pleasant but bland taste that changed to bitter if chewed very long. Many lichens are reported to have a bitter taste, possibly because the fungus produces toxic chemicals to keep insects and animals from eating them.

Lichens are found on the same cliffs where pictographs are located and in many sites they have grown over the paintings. The location of pictographs was undoubtedly influenced by the presence or absence of lichen growth. Places that had overhangs that reduced the amount of moisture, and therefore the amount of lichen growth, were ideal locations for placing paintings.

If conditions remained the same, pictographs placed in these locations should still have very little lichen growth and still be visible today. However, cliffs also change with time and ideal locations in the past may now have thick lichen growth that totally obscures paintings underneath. Some species of lichens grow so slowly that their progress in covering a pictograph has been used to try and date pictographs.

In some places in North America, lichen was scraped away to leave an image behind. These images, known as lichenoglyphs or lichenographs obviously have a limited life span unless they are periodically renewed. They have been found on Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods, but nowhere in the Boundary Waters to my knowledge.

Although lichens are extremely hardy, they don’t stand up very well to air pollution. They obtain a lot of their moisture from rain and consequently also take up many of the pollutants that are dissolved in the rain water. For this reason, lichens were among the most radioactive organisms tested after the Chernoble nuclear disaster. Lichen diversity drops dramatically when air pollution increases. Many species that were common in urban areas are now difficult to locate.

Although much is known about many of the common lichen species, some of the lichens in our region are unknown and unnamed. Recent studies in forests in the Pacific Northwest found many new species in the canopies of old-growth trees. Undoubtedly new species also exist in the canopies of the old-growth red and white pines in our region also.

The biologist Lewis Thomas, in his book “The Lives of the Cell”, once said: “A century ago there was a consensus that evolution was a record of open warfare amongst competing species, that the fittest were the strongest aggressors. Now it begins to look different. The greatest successes in evolution, the mutants who have made it, have done so by fitting in with, and sustaining the rest of life.”

Lichens are superb examples of how organisms that cooperate can out-compete other organisms. Lichens are remarkable, they photosynthesis like a plant and at the same time they decompose like a fungus. They utilize their dual natures to survive in places where other organisms can’t. They undoubtedly were among the first organisms to grow in our area after the glacier retreated through here about 11,000 years ago. They helped to set the stage for the rich and diverse ecosystems that followed.

These tough but fragile pioneer organisms continue to thrive in the Boundary Waters. There is hardly a cliff, large boulder, patch of ground more than a few metres across, or trunk of a mature tree, that doesn’t have lichens growing on it. They are so common that they become part of the background and go unnoticed.

This summer go out of your way to paddle slowly alongside a cliff and carefully check out the variety of lichens growing on the rock. Run your hands over the cliff face and feel the variety of shapes and textures of the lichens. Cliffs are vertical mosaics with almost as many kinds of lichens as the number of plants you’d find on a similar-sized plot of ground. Lichens of the North Woods, a recent book by Joe Walewski, is an excellent source of information about identifying lichens in Quetico Park and other northern forests.

The next time you are having lunch on the rocky shore of a lake, take a good look at the lichens that you have been walking and sitting on. A small hand magnifier, like those that geologists use, will give a clearer view of these fascinating organisms. The colors and shapes are astounding. You can spend hours exploring a habitat just a few yards wide.

Ice Age Journey

 

Quetico Park contains a wide variety of different habitats: large stands of mature red and white pine, even-aged jack pine and poplar stands (the result of recent fires), wet areas with an understory of moss and overstory of black spruce, and open bogs composed of leather leaf, sphagnum moss and orchids. These and a variety of other habitats in Quetico are home to many different plants and animals.

These familiar habitats and the animals that inhabit them evolved out of the last ice-age, which reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago. (When I wrote this article in 2005 I used radiocarbon dates which are used by scientists but are significantly different than chronological dates. As an example, if a bone is dated to 10,000 radiocarbon years it is almost 12,000 calendar years old. On August 9, 2012 I changed the dates to chronological dates to more accurately reflect how long ago these events happened. )  At the peak of the last glacial period, called the Wisconsin, virtually all of Canada and a large portion of the northern United States were covered with ice. All of Minnesota was covered by glacial ice except for the southeast corner of the state.

When the glacier reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago it covered all of Ontario and almost all of Minnesota.

It has been estimated that this glacier may have been up to one mile thick. A glacier of this size obviously had an enormous impact on the land, both as the glacier was getting larger and as it was shrinking. As it grew, its enormous weight gouged out weak areas in the bedrock and ground up boulders and bedrock into a mixture of sand, gravel and small rocks. This glacial till is found throughout Quetico today. Boulders frozen into the ice sometimes left deep scratches called glacial straiae that are visible on the shores of many lakes, including Ottertrack, Knife and Cirrus. When the glacial advance stopped, long ridges of glacial till, called moraines, were left behind. A large terminal moraine, known as the Seep Rock Moraine, passes through the northeast corner of the park.

The slow retreat of the glacier was equally dramatic. The enormous amounts of water melting off the glacier created numerous lakes and ponds, and water levels were generally higher than they are today. A huge island-studded lake called Lake Agassiz temporarily covered half of Quetico Park. Big, fast-moving rivers deposited sand and silt into these enlarged lakes. When the lakes shrunk to their present size, they created flat, generally boggy areas from what had been shallow bays. The best example of this in Quetico is the flat, sandy area east of Kawa Bay of Kawnipi Lake. The Wawiag River now winds through silt and sand that was deposited in a shallow bay of what is now Kawnipi Lake.

The changes in vegetation that have occurred since the glacier retreated are striking. Fortunately, a record of the past plant communities that succeeded the glacier can be found in the bottom of lakes and ponds. Wind-blown pollen settles on lakes and sinks to the bottom, where it is eventually covered with more pollen. Since pollen from different types of plants is of different sizes and shapes, the pollen can be used to give an idea of past plant communities.

Pollen cores from the bottom of a variety of lakes and ponds in Northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota have been analyzed, although no detailed pollen studies have been done from lakes in Quetico. Lake of the Clouds, a small lake in the BWCAW just south of Ottertrack Lake, has had an analysis of the pollen from the bottom of the lake, as has Rattle Lake, which is located just 100 miles northwest of Quetico Park. The pollen from both lakes shows similar trends in change in vegetation with time.

The bottom layer of pollen represents the first plants after the glacial retreat and the top layer represents plants from more recent years. In between is the pollen that represents the history of plant succession of the long intervening period. One of the many complicating factors is that some plant species produce large amounts of pollen that can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind, while others produce very little pollen. Analysis of pollen cores gives a picture, although somewhat fuzzy, of the vegetation change in a particular area.

It is currently thought that Lake of the Clouds became free of glacial ice about 13,000 years ago, and that Rattle Lake, being father north, became ice free a few hundred years later. The pollen from the oldest zone in both lakes indicates sparse vegetation that was composed mainly of lichens, herbs and shrubs. Pollen from higher lavels showed an increase in levels of spruce and birch. About 11,000 years ago at Lake of the Clouds and 10,500 years ago at Rattle Lake, the levels of spruce declined and levels of species of pine greatly increased.

The pollen from both lakes shows a strikingly similar pattern from tundra or tundra-like conditions, changing to a spruce-birch forest, which evolves into a predominantly pine and spruce forest. It apparently took over 2000 years for Quetico to make the transition from a land just freed from glacial ice to a forest mosaic similar to what is present today. Prior to the forest mosaic was a period when the vegetation was much different from today and when, consequently, the animals were not those we expect to see in Quetico.

This post-glacial period was characterized by a warming climate, large lakes produced by the melting of glacial ice, and vegetation that was a rich patchwork of herbs, grasses, mosses, fungus, shrubs and small trees that could have supported a high density of animals. This tundra-like vegetation is thought to have been unique, and no environment exists today that matches it. The tundra-like environment that was home to a variety of ice-age mammals is sometimes referred to as the mammoth steppe – named after the woolly mammoths, the largest of the ice-age mammals.

When the southern part of Quetico was first freed of glacial ice about 13,000 years ago, the land to the south contained a staggering array of large mammals known as the ice-age megafauna. They included woolly mammoths, mastodons, sabre-tooth tigers, camels, horses and woolly rhinoceroses. Some of these animals were of spectacular size, such as 500-lb. beavers, giant sloth that were 12 feet tall standing on their hind legs, and dire wolves weighing up to 200 pounds.

By 12 000 years ago, when all of Quetico was free of glacial ice, many of the large ice-age mammals were extinct or on their way to extinction. It is not known what caused their extinction, but there is no shortage of theories. The warming of the climate and the accompanying changes in vegetation may have made survival impossible for cold-adapted species like the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

When the ice was retreating through Quetico, there was a Palaeoindian culture in the Americas known as the Clovis culture. The Clovis culture is characterized by large, fluted spearpoints called Clovis points. In numerous locations, Clovis points have been associated with the fossil remains of woolly mammoths. The Clovis people were successful hunters of woolly mammoths and other megafauna. Clovis points have been found in central and southern Minnesota and throughout Wisconsin, except for the northern extreme. No evidence of the Clovis culture has been found in the BWCAW or Quetico, but recently a Clovis point was reported from the Duluth area.

The extinction at the end of the last ice age left ecological niches that remain empty to this day. The warming of the climate caused a slow but steady replacement of the rich tundra-like environment, which had provided a side variety of food for grazers and browsers, with a predominantly forested environment. In North America, the mammoths, horses, camels, ground sloths, and giant beavers that once were prominent mammals disappeared with the rich post-glacial environment that they thrived in. The noted zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace once stated: “We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the largest, the fiercest, and strongest forms have disappeared.”

There are skeletal remains of these megafauna throughout the Americas. In areas with hot, dry climates, such as much of the American Southwest, there are numerous well preserved remains of ice-age mammals. The LeBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain thousands of skeletons from this time period, especially of carnivores such as dire wolves, sabre-tooth tigers and the American lion. In Siberia and Alaska, virtually intact woolly mammoths have been recovered from permafrost. In 1901, portions of a woolly mammoth that had been frozen for 20,000 years were eaten by a dog team when a Russian scientist came across a woolly mammoth eroding out of the ice in northern Siberia.

The acid soils of the Canadian Shield are, however, very hard on bone and antlers, and only in unusual situations do they last a decade, yet alone thousands of years. Moose bones and antlers two or three years old are usually heavily chewed by rodents and covered with fungus, moss and bacteria that rapidly recycle the valuable nutrients. Only unusual conditions, where the remains settle into a peat bog or are quickly covered with silt at the bottom of a lake, allow for long term preservation of bone.

However, the remains of a few ice-age animals have been recovered near Quetico. A skull of an extinct form of bison was found while dredging for peat on the edge of a bog near Kenora, Ontario. The skull of this bison was picked up intact by the backhoe. The operator of the backhoe joked, “I told my friends that I dug up the Devil himself.” The presence of a bison north of Lake of the Woods was a shock, but it is consistent with the concept of a tundra-grassland environment after the retreat of the glacier.

The bones of woolly mammoths have been recovered in southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba; and recently, the bones of a mastodon were recovered in southern Wisconsin. In a few cases, the remains of large mammals have been found in association with human artefacts. The most clear-cut correlations are a bison kill site near Lake Itasca that dates back to about 8,000 years ago and a woolly mammoth in southern Wisconsin that dates to 11,000 years ago. Both of these sites had animal bones and stone tools found close together and were apparently kill sites.

The most spectacular find, however, occurred just north of Atikokan, deep in

Charlie Brooks holding a 12,000 year old caribou antler from the bottom Steep Rock Lake.

 the silt at the bottom of a lake. Iron ore was discovered at Steep Rock Lake in 1938, and diamond drilling showed that a rich ore body was located at the bottom of the lake. The demand for iron ore was high because of World War II, so the decision was made to drain the lake to get at the ore. Huge dredges were brought in to pump out the silt that covered the ore. The dredges were able to pump the silt from the bottom of the main body of the lake, but along the lakeshore the silt had to be washed into the rapidly draining lake using high pressure hoses.

On April 16, 1957, Charlie Brooks and Dick Kaemingk were surveying the monitored area along the shore. They noticed a large antler in the silt and dug it out and set it aside. Since the goal of the operation was to remove the silt and get at the ore underneath, the exact depth of the antler in the silt was not recorded. However, at the time of discovery, it was estimated that the antler was located beneath 60 to 100 feet of silt and clay. The astounding depth of silt above the antler indicated that it was probably quite old. It is of interest that there was about 450 feet of silt in the deepest part of Steep Rock Lake. The antler was deeply buried, but there were still hundreds of feet of silt below it.

The enormous amount of silt in Steep Rock was undoubtedly due to the fact that the fast flowing Seine River dropped its glacial debris into the lake when it slowed down upon entering the lake. The antler was found less than a thousand feet from the falls where the river enters the lake. Since the antler is in such good shape, it probably did not come down the Seine River and over the falls into the lake.

The caribou antler recovered by Brooks and Kaemingk was not the only one that had been noticed. Brooks remembers seeing other antlers on top of the monitor barges, presumably put there by other workers and later discarded. It is not surprising that the presence of caribou antlers was not considered unusual since woodland caribou were common in the area until the 1930’s. What is extremely fortunate is that someone had the curiosity and foresight to set one aside. (see photo of Charlie Brooks holding the 12,000 year old caribou antler from Steep Rock Lake at beginning of article)

It is ironic that the caribou antler was found near Atikokan, since Atikokan means “caribou bones” in Ojibwa. There are other references to caribou in the area, with a Caribus Lake and Caribus Creek just south of Atikokan. There is also a Caribou Lake in the eastern BWCAW. When I first saw the antler in the mid-1970’s, it had been hanging for over a decade in the entrance to the building that houses the Atikokan Library and Museum, a log building near the main street of Atikokan.

Lawrence Jackson, an archaeologist associated with Trent University, recently had the antler carbon-dated, and it was found to be approximately 12,000 years old. Originally thought to be from a woodland caribou, it was analyzed by experts and is now thought to be from a male barren ground caribou. The presence of barren ground caribou on Steep Rock Lake 12,000 years ago seems surprising, but it is consistent with evidence from pollen studies that strongly indicate that this area was primarily a mixture of spruce, birch and tundra at that time.

Barren ground caribou migrate in large herds and shed their antlers in early winter after the completion of the rut in the fall. A male caribou probably shed his antlers on the ice surface of Steep Rock Lake after spending the summer somewhere north of Atikokan. The caribou then continued on its journey with the rest of the migrating herd to its winter range to the south.

The herd of barren ground caribou that shed their antlers on Steep Rock Lake as they began their migration to their wintering grounds to the south would have been a major food resource for Palaeoindians living in the area. Caribou are hunted during the fall migration for both their hides and for food. The location of these ancient migration routes is a mystery.

In the winter of 1983, a local trapper named Phil Sawdo discovered some rock paintings on a creekside cliff north of Montgomery Lake. At this site, there are two sets of paintings about fifty metres apart. One set portrays a caribou and human-like figures and other a moose or caribou. These paintings are unique in Quetico in that they are not located on a navigable body of water; you can paddle up to all the other known pictograph sites in the park. Phil Sawdo thought that the caribou were formerly ambushed in the narrows formed by the pictograph cliff and a high hill directly opposite. Two creeks come into the area north of Montgomery, and the small valleys associated with them could have funnelled migrating caribou into the narrows where the pictographs are located.

It is not known how old the Montgomery Lake rock paintings are, and there are no rock paintings that are known to date back to Palaeoindian times. However, it is certainly possible that the Montgomery lake rock paintings depict caribou at a spot where they were hunted during migrations thousands of years ago.

Because of the similarity between barren ground caribou and woodland caribou that were present in Quetico until the 1930’s and the unknown date of the rock paintings, it is just speculation that there is a connection between the barren ground caribou antler from Steep Rock Lake and the rock paintings on Montgomery Lake. There is, however, other evidence that caribou were in the area 10,000 years ago and that they were hunted by humans. A large Palaeoindian site near Thunder Bay produced fragments of bone that have been tentatively identified as caribou. Archaeologists have suggested that this site, which is also about 10,000 years old, and others from the same time period are evidence of caribou hunting by bands of Palaeoindians along the north shore of Lake Superior.

There are also numerous Palaeoindian sites in Quetico and BWCAW that apparently date back at least 10 000 years. The culture in the area at that time is known as the Plano and is thought to have succeeded the Clovis that ended about 11 000 years ago. Because of the lack of organic material, none of these sites have been carbon dated. They have been primarily dated by the presence of large spearpoints which are very similar to those found at dated Palaeoindian sites to the south. The large spearpoints that are characteristic of Palaeoindian sites are beautifully worked and made from a variety of stones.

By the time the Clovis culture had evolved into the Plano culture, many of the ice-age megafauna were extinct. All of the evidence for Palaeoindians in Northwestern Ontario and the BWCAW is believed to be from the Plano culture. The Clovis people, and the woolly mammoths and other megafauna they co-existed with, may never have reached Quetico. However, the area was free of glacial ice in time for people of the Clovis culture and the ice-age animals they hunted to have entered and lived in Quetico. They would have, however, had to live close to the leading edge of the glacier.

So . . . I’m still looking for a Clovis point, a faced pictograph that depicts a woolly mammoth, and the bones of a mastodon or dire wolf eroding out of the silt banks of the Wawiag River. I may never find any of them, but the thought that it is possible adds another dimension to a trip into Quetico.  (An updated and enlarged treatment of Quetico’s Ice Age legacy can be found in my book.)

Quetico’s First Explorers

 At a special moment during a canoe trip in Quetico, you may have felt that you had arrived in a place where few, if any, people had ever been. It may have been at the end of an overgrown, seldom used portage, on the top of a ridge overlooking a spruce bog, or even in the early morning mist at a campsite on a heavily traveled lake. This feeling invites exploration, compels one to see what is around the next point of land, and to fine out what is over the next portage.

The feeling that Quetico is a timeless, unspoiled landscape magnifies the urge to explore. This feeling of timelessness is enhanced by the presence of old-growth forests which contain some of the oldest red and white pines and white cedar in North America. In the southeast corner of the park, these old trees grow over some of the oldest bedrock in North America.

This feeling of entering a fresh, unspoiled land is certainly understandable since Quetico is relatively undisturbed. There are roads only around the periphery, and almost half of Quetico has never been logged. Although Quetico has, to a remarkable degree, escaped the ravages of modern man, it has also played an important role in Canadian history.

Blair Fraser, who was an avid canoeist as well as an editor, once wrote:

What gives Quetico its special quality is a unique blend of past and preent, history and geography. Here preserved like a gilded fly in amber, is the Canadian wilderness as the fur traders knew it centuries ago, the Canada that caught the imagination of Samuel de Champlain and the Chevalier de la Salle, the Canada that David Thompson surveyed and Alexander Mackenzie traveled.

It is certainly exciting to canoe the same lakes, walk the same portages and use the same campsites as some of the most renowned and celebrated explorers in Canadian history.

Thompson, Mackenzie and numerous other early travelers left journals that detail their trips through Quetico. J. Arnold Bolz wrote a captivating book called Portage Into the Past where he chronicles a canoe trip he took along the border route in 1958 and adds excerpts from journal entries of earlier travelers, both Canadian and American, on the same route. Here you can read Alexander Mackenzieís rapturous account of the attributes of Basswood Lake, and re-live trips down Crooked Lake with David Thompson, John Bigsby and Joseph Delafield.

Jacques de Noyen was the first recorded European to see Quetico when he passed through in 1688 on his way to Rainy Lake. It is thought that he paddled up the Kaministiqua River from Lake Superior and crossed Quetico from French Lake to Lac la Croix. This route later became known as the Fort William route since it started on Lake Superior at the NorthWest Company post known as Fort William.

La Verendre was the first European known to travel the southern edge of Quetico when he traversed the Grand Portage and headed west in 1732. This route became the main voyageur route and eventually became the obrder between Canada and the United States. The route that de Noyen used, an all-Canadian route, became the main voyageur route after the U.S. imposed a tax on goods going over the Grand Portage in 1801.

The wave of French and English explorers that probed and prodded this area in the late 1600ís and early 1700’s were exploring land that was new to them. The land, however, had been occupied for thousands of years, and Europeans hired the Native Americans who lived in and knew the area to guide them through it. It is ironic that the first European explorers, who we usually think of blazing new trails through the wilderness, were guided through areas that were already well known. The Ojibwa drew maps for LaVerendre and other early European explorers and guided them down well used routes to the west. European explorers were primarily seeking economic gain for themselves or their employers and were apparently reluctant to give much, if any, credit to their Indian guides. They put themselves in the spotlight, and the contributions of the people who lived here long before the Europeans arrived were ignored.

To de Noyen and the explorers, voyageurs and settlers that followed him, this area seemed to be occupied by a relatively small number of people. Parts of it seemed to be totally unoccupied. This was partly due to the rocky, glacier-scoured landscape that didn’t support agriculture or large herds of grazing mammals. There was, however, another major factor.

Although European explorers moved quickly across North America from east to west, their viruses traveled even faster. It is estimated that European viruses reached Northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota 50 years before the first Europeans. Smallpox, measles, influenza and a variety of other diseases that Native Americans had never previously encountered, ran rampant for two generations before de Noyen even arrived in this area.

It is estimated that from two-thirds to nine-tenths of Native Americans died from diseases, many of them before they had ever seen a European. There are only guestimates of Native American populations in this area prior to the viral invasion. We do know, however, that the entire region was occupied and that numerous waves of epidemics, including a particularly horrific one in 1781, decimated local Native populations.

The feeling of entering an unpopulated land, expressed by many European explorers, was understandable, but in retrospect we can see that they were entering a depopulated land. This was true for the Americans in general, not just this area. To find the earliest explorers of Quetico, we have to go back far earlier than Jacques de Noyen in 1688. He wasnít even close to being the first; he was thousands of years too late for that distinction.

Evidence for earlier inhabitants of Quetico has been found on campsites, portages and cliff faces through the park. It isnít known for sure when people first entered Quetico, but it is thought that nomadic hunters followed caribou and other large mammals as they moved north in the wake of the retreating glacier. It’s possible that people lived in this area even before the last glaciation, but if they did, the glacier would have removed any evidence of their existence.

The continental glacier that slowly melted at the end of the last ice-age, disappeared from Quetico about 11,000 years ago. The people who followed the retreating glacier have been given the name Paleoindians, although it is not known what they called themselves. They were entering a land that no human had ever seen and were Queticoís first true explorers.

When the glacier reached its maximum size about 20,000 years ago it covered all of Ontario and most of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Very little is known about the Paleoindians who entered this area since only their stone tools have been found. They used very large and skilfully made spearpoints and scrapers. Their spearpoints were much larger than anything made in later time periods. Nothing is known about their objects made of wood, leather, bone or any other perishable material. Consequently, nothing is known about their lodging, clothing or transportation.

It isn’t known if they had snowshoes, sleds, or canoes. The questions about transportation technology are obviously important ones, since getting around in this environment without snowshoes or canoes would have been exceedingly difficult. Since the Paleoindians successfully adapted to an environment that was covered in deep snow for half the year, and was as much water as land the rest of the year, it is safe to assume that they had both snowshoes and watercraft of some sort.

The Quetico that the Paleoindians explored was a much different place that it is today. The land was recently released from the glacier, and the glacier’s melting produced a huge amount of water. The flow of the water to the north and west was blocked by the glacier, so the water levels rose and formed a monstrous lake knows as Lake Agassiz. At its largest, it covered an area five times as great as all of todayís Great Lakes combined.

Geologists have looked for, and failed to find, clear evidence of Lake Agassiz shorelines in Quetico. Since Lake Agassiz existed for a relatively short time and its level rose and fell depending on the rate that water entered, it didn’t leave obvious shorelines in the Quetico area. It is thought that the water in Lake Agassiz rose to about 1340 feet, the level of Pickerel Lake today. Consequently, all of today’s lakes with an elevation of less than 1340 feet would have been part of Lake Agassiz.

Only the southeast and south-central sections of Quetico were above the levels of Lake Agassiz. The lakes in these areas had shorelines similar to what exists today. Paleoindians were the first to see Silver Falls and Louisa Falls, the first to stand on the shores of Knife, Saganagons and Kahshahpiwi Lakes, the first to paddle Ottertrack and McEwen Lakes, and the first to portage into Silence Lake and Other Man Lake.

Most of the park would have been part of Lake Agassiz and today’s familiar shorelines would have been under water. When Paleoindians first paddled onto Lake Agassiz, they would have paddled over what are now portages, and only

When Lake Agassiz covered most of Quetico it would have had numerous islands, much like those that dot Wicksteed Lake in this photo. The islands, however, would have had tundra vegetation.

 the tops of cliffs and hills would have protruded from the water. Lake Agassiz must have looked much like Wicksteed Lake does today. It was a lake with numerous shallows and was loaded with islands.

Lakes like Beaverhouse, Crooked and Sturgeon were probably under more than 100 feet of water when Paleoindians first entered Quetico. Only the tops of the high hills and cliffs would have protruded from the waters of Lake Agassiz. What are now rapids on the Maligne River were then calm places in the depths of Lake Agassiz.

When the glaciers retreated farther north and the drainage to the north was no longer blocked, the levels of Lake Agassiz dropped fairly rapidly and lake levels similar to those found today were established. This is thought to have occurred about 9,500 years ago, when Paleoindians still lived in Quetico.

Compared to todayís Quetico, the most striking difference faced by the first Paleoindians (other than the elevated water levels and larger rivers and creeks), was the difference in vegetation. For the first few hundreds of years, there were no trees and the area was tundra. The wildlife was as different as the vegetation. Barren-ground caribou were definitely present, as the 10,000-year-old caribou antler from just north of Atikokan clearly shows. Other animals that occupied this rich, grassy, tundra-like landscape may have included woolly mammoth, mastodon, musk-oxen, giant bison, dire wolves and other megafauna from the end of the ica-age.

Most of the megafauna from the last ice-age became extinct about 10,000 years ago, about 1,000 years after the retreat of the last glacier through Quetico. So it is possible that ice-age megafauna inhabited Quetico during this time period. There may have been packs of 200-lb. dire wolves chasing musk-oxen near Saganaga Lake, and sabretooth tigers may have pounced on barren-ground caribou from low cliffs along That Man Lake. Since the time between the retreat of the glacier and entrance of humans isnít known, itís not certain that people and woolly mammoths were in Quetico at the same time.

The Quetico of the Paleoindian period differed in more than just water levels, vegetation and wildlife. Knife Lake has shorelines composed of a rock known as Knife Lake Siltstone. It is a coal-black rock whose surface takes on a lighter color as it ages. With time, the black rockís surface lightens to a dark grey and, after thousands of years, its surface becomes a light grey. Today the shoreline is a nondescript light grey, but imagine the spectacular site Knife Lake must have been to the first Paleoindians to reach its shores. In late winter, the coal-black rocky shoreline would have stood in shocking contrast to the snow and the ice on the lake.

When the water is high, the Falls Chain can be a challenging place to canoe. Imagine what it would be like if the amount of flow was increased by 5 to 10 times. The flow of the creeks and rivers coming into Quetico was probably at least that much greater when the glacier was retreating. The trips down the Falls Chain into LakeAgassiz that the first Paleoindians made must have been exciting, and at times very treacherous. Many of today’s portages would have been underwater and they may have used very long portages to avoid the fast, dangerous sections.

The forerunners of today’s Wawiag and Cache Rivers were also once large rivers carrying large loads of silt and sand into Lake Agassiz. When Lake Agassiz retreated, most of the silt and sand was left above the level of the lake left behind, now known as Kawnipi Lake. The Wawiag and Cache Rivers, now only a fraction of their former size, slowly meander through a wide, sandy clay plain that was formed by the glacial debris they carried into a bay of Lake Agassiz. The huge amount of sand and clay that now forms the banks of these rivers is a reminder of a monstrous lake that no longer exists.

A Late Palaeoindian spearpoint found in Quetico Park.

Paleoindian spearpoints have beenfound near the shores of Lake Agassiz and Paleoindians probably paddled and fished its waters and explored and hunted its islands. They undoubtedly established many of Quetico’s portages and were the first to use many of its campsites.

It is intriguing to think that at least some of Queticoís portages may have originated even before the arrival of the first humans. Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist and writer, once speculated that humans first moved across and explored the Americas by following the trails of the animals they hunted. The evidence for the first human inhabitants of the Americas, the Paleoindians, are spearpoints, knives and scrapers . . .

associated with the bones of extinct horses, camels, sloths and elephants is clear and precise evidence that he was relying heavily upon big game for his subsistence ñ big game that moved in the open, fed upon grasses and left plainly marked trails. In every major continent to which the great herbivores have penetrated, there once ran a series of game trails beaten into the landscape by millions of feet. The trails led to everything that man desired. They ran to water, they ran to salt licks and they found their way across the lowest divide . . . Certain it is that he must have marched on many a well-word trail left for him where, ironically, no human foot had ever trod.

Humans, looking for the easiest route from one lake to the next, may well have followed the trails made by the animals they were hunting. While it seems irrefutable that many of Queticoís portages date all the way back to the Paleoindian people, some may even pre-date those early inhabitants. They might have originated with the heavy feet of ice-age mammals, and these trails were followed and transformed by Paleoindians into portages.

The human habitation of Quetico has apparently been continuous since the Paleoindian period. The long Native American presence in Quetico is evident in the name of lakes and rivers. Many, such as Keewatin, Kasakokwog and Batchewaung, still have their Ojibwa names. Others, including Sagnaga, Kawnipi, and the Wawiag River, have Ojibwa names that have been condensed, altered or shortened. Knife, Crooked, Ottertrack and Sturgeon are examples of lakes whose names are straight translations of their Ojibwa names.

The legacy of the earliest explorers not only lives on in place names and pictographs, but also in their descendants. Many Ojibwa with ties to Quetico live in nearby communities in both Minnesota and Ontario. The closest and most obvious are the people from the Lac la Croix First Nation, a community of about 300 people on the southwest boundary of the park. The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Lac la Croix First Nation recently agreed on a partnership regarding the management of the park.

European cultures and Native American cultures have interacted and influenced each other for about 300 years in this area. Just as European beliefs and values have crept into Native American cultures, so have Native American beliefs and values become part of non-Native cultures. Through paintings, literature and personal contact, many Native American beliefs are now woven into the fabric of contemporary Canadian and American culture.

Much has also been lost in the millennia since Paleoindians first entered Quetico. The woolly mammoth, giant bison, dire wolves and other ice-age megafauna have long been extinct. They have been replaced with wildlife that, in their own way, are as impressive as what came before them. Moose, white-tailed deer, timberwolves, black bear, lynx, martin, fisher, bald eagle, osprey and loons are found in relative abundance in todayís Quetico.

The grassy tundra-like landscape that the ice-age megafauna thrived on has slowly evolved into todayís diverse habitats. Since Quetico has evolved through time periods when it was both colder and warmer than it is today, it contains both Arctic and southern plants. You can now find Arctic plants like snow-white cinquefoil and floating marsh marigold, and more southern species like silver maple, basswood and wild ginger.

Even though we are long removed from the time of Queticoís first explorers, we can still make our own exciting discoveries. Quetico is a special place where the past and present seem to magically come together. Canoeists today, like their Paleoindian counterparts, have a fascinating landscape to explore. If we continue to take good care of it, generations yet to come will also have the joy of exploring the unspoiled, timeless landscape of Quetico.  (An expanded and up-dated version of this article is found in my book.)

Chuck Farnum: Bushwhacker Extraordinaire

bushwhacker

Chuck Farnum

Some people go into Quetico to fish, some to find solitude and others for the scenery and wildlife. Others, however, like Charles “Chuck” Farnum and his extended family, are “bush-whackers” extraordinaire; they seek out and explore places that are seldom visited. If Chuck Farnum, the clan elder, wouldn’t have been become a doctor, he would have been a terrific wilderness guide or explorer. A modest man, he simply describes himself as “primarily a traveller that likes to investigate out-of-the-way places.”

Jim Clark and Bud Dickson, who with their their wives are co-owners of Canoe Canad agree that in twenty-six years of outfitting canoe trips the Farnums “are definitely most adventurous trippers we’ve ever encountered”. From Jim, I first heard about Chuck Farnum’s off-trail exploits and I was fortunate to have encountered the Farnums this summer on a cool, bright August morning in the Pickerel Narrows. Three generations of Farnums, spouses and offspring were heading into Quetico sixty-two years after Chuck Farnum’s first Quetico trip.

His first canoe trip was in 1929 while attending Camp Minne Wanka in Three Lakes, Wisconsin and his first trip in Quetico was in 1937 after he had heard glowing accounts of it from a doctor friend. For his first few years, he obtained some items and advice on canoe routes from Border Lakes Outfitting in Winton, Minnesota, which was then run by Sigurd Olson. He then paddled north into Quetico and Chuck Farnums canoe trips have continued to the present.

1944 was a pivotal year in Chuck Farnum’s life: he got married, obtained his medical degree from Northwestern University, took a canoe trip into Quetico with his wife, Betty Farnum, and entered the U. S. Army. He was discharged from the Army in 1947 and settled in Peoria, Illinois where he specialized in internal medicine until his retirement in 1985.

Chuck and Betty had four children and, in the years when the children were growing up, Betty and her daughter visited her mother at a cabin in the Muskokas in southern Ontario when Chuck went into Quetico with their sons. During the years when their three boys were small, they came into Quetico from the north and used Indian guides. Chuck has especially fond memories of Harry Bombay, a trapper and guide from the Atikokan area who “was wonderful with the boys and became our true friend”. Like many doctors, Chuck Farnum was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Betty Farnum said that during these busy and stressful years “thank goodness, he had canoe trips to restore his soul.”

Since those trips with his three sons, many different colleagues, friends and family members have accompanied the Farnums on their journeys. The family has grown over time by marriages and the arrival of grandchildren. Tragically, the family was diminished by the death of two of the sons in the last few years. When talking to Chuck Farnum about the places he’s visited in Quetico, I become painfully aware of the number of times that I considered going up some shallow, overgrown creek or getting out the compass and heading cross-country to a small lake but decided against it. Sometimes I did venture out and was rewarded with the experience of visiting new places, but too often I thought “maybe next time” and stuck to the easier, more established routes.

While many have only contemplated paddling north of the Maligne River up Wildgoose Creek or Trail Creek, or exploring the areas east of Agnes Lake by heading up Dettburn Creek, the Farnums have travelled these creeks and many more. Creeks in the boundary waters area are usually brushy and require numerous pull-overs, duck-unders and the strong possibility of dragging the canoe while slogging in muck. Patience, innovation and a willingness (or better yet, an eagerness) to get wet, dirty, bug-bitten, scratched-up, tired and sore are the keys to successfully negotiating these creeks. Small creeks almost inevitably originate in small lakes and frequently in small lakes that are seldom visited. From these lakes, the Farnums reason, other lakes can be reached by simply taking out a compass and heading cross-country.

Guides working in the Boundary Waters in the 1920’s and 1930’s used maps that were rudimentary and incomplete. These maps, lacking the detail of contemporary maps, didn’t show many of the smaller lakes and creeks. Thus, visitors and their guides consequently were more adventurous in seeking out new places to explore and fish, and frequently went up creeks and over ridges not knowing what they would find on the other side. Atikokan guides like Harry Bombay, Phil Sawdo, Richard Tennesco, and Lewis Tennesco frequently sought out new places to fish and took willing customers with them. Sigurd Olson, who learned from similar guides in Winton and Ely, described this type of exploration in his book Open Horizons “When I was not too sure what lay ahead, I would leave the canoe and head for some distant hill to climb a tree and look for a spot of blue. Some times the men would come with me, enjoy the adventure as much as I. Once we saw the blue we returned to the canoes, then with saws and axes we cut the trail. Those portages were often long and rugged, and frequently they led to little lakes that had no outlets or connections with waters beyond, but with the excitement of standing on a shore none of us had seen before more than made up for the backbreaking labor of getting there”.

Chuck Farnum paddled with, talked to, and learned from some of these guides on his earlier trips. He obviously never forgot the joy of seeking out new places and later discovered the joy of passing these skills on to others. Chuck, his son Jim, daughter Patty, spouses, grandchildren and friends continue the quest of explore Quetico’s hidden places.

One of their journeys was up Devine Creek, which flows into the east side of the south end of Kawnipi Lake. Like many others, I have started heading up this creek but turned around when it got shallow and progress became difficult. It is always easy to decide to wait until the water is higher (although it will never get high enough to make it an easy trip).

In 1968, Chuck Farnum took an 18-day trip with his son Bill and four of Bill’s high school friends. On the fifth day, Chuck said that they “opted for adventure” and headed from Kawnipi Lake up Devine Creek toward Mack Lake. Bill kept a journal where he wrote, “Up at 8 AM with pancakes for breakfast. Devine Creek divine at first but soon turned into divine crud. Many pullovers, bogs and beaver ponds. Second half stream more difficult. Made our own camp on Fluker Lake at 8 PM, everyone dead tired.” The next day they “bushwacked portage from Fluker to a pothole” and then compassed to Mack Lake which was “a bear of a portage over deadfalls and through muck made more difficult by a high ridge”.

It seems that to the Farnums, a really good trip involves not just heading up a difficult creek, but also crossing at least two long and difficult “portages” over terrain where no portages exist. Even with years of experience in reading maps and using compasses, the Farnums occasionally end up at the top of a cliff with no easy way down, or at a tangled alder swamp with no lake in sight. They have the needed combination of perseverance and experience to not only safely negotiate difficult routes, but to relish them.

A trip to Sawmill Lake, located two miles south of the east end of Pickerel Lake, was one of their more memorable journeys. Chuck Farnham recalls that fascinating trip. “There were just three of us in 1971, my youngest son Bill, his friend Steve, and me. From Rawn Narrows we headed up a long narrow bay northeast toward Howard Lake. The water was deep enough to reach the end of the bay and we found a poorly used portage into the rather unattractive Howard Lake where we camped. What to do now? We noted a small lake on the map named Sawmill, set our compass and set our way eastward. Several hours later we hit the lake on the bottom and came to the fallen remains of an old logging camp, a large brown area about half the size of a football field, completely flat except for the gables jutting up. We explored an old trappers cabin and camped on a peninsula across from the ex camp. It was a hot calm night. Just as we were about to go to sleep, we were submitted to the cacophony of horrendous yowling, yelping, yapping and barking which raised our hair and blood pressure. A shout turned off the noise and we heard the wolves farther away. The noise returned again about 5 A. M. We crawled out of the tent and crept over toward the fallen camp and saw two rather skinny black wolves come out from one of the gables. We broke camp and compassed our way north to the Pines on eastern Pickerel Lake. It was a rewarding experience to see wolves in daylight during the summer. And we finally conquered the Howard route home.”

In order to take these long cross-country portages, the Farnums travel lightly. They eagerly experiment with Kevlar canoes and light-weight camping gear. For many years they have been outfitted by Canoe Canada, and Jim Clark noted that “I love it when they get here and take all of the fancy outfitting apart. They take no plates and no silverware – just eat with a spoon and cup. They take just the essentials”. In 1997 they bushwacked from Alice Lake to Vachon Lake. They then took compass bearings and headed east through the bush to a pothole that is southwest of Buckingham Lake. Chuck’s granddaughter Allison, said that this bushwack was “by far the most challenging portage I have ever experienced. We slept in a swamp, yet Grampy kept his infectious grin”. In the morning, they portaged cross-country to Buckingham Lake and from there they took the established portages back to Pickerel Lake. Ryan Beal, who has accompanied his grandfather on six Quetico trips, wrote that he “has an ability to lead us across a non-existent portage or through rough, stormy waters while claiming that he personally believes such a venture might be foolish. However, we know that at heart he has an insatiable desire for such adventures. He has shown me many things in the woods but most importantly he has shown who he truly is. Through our trips to the Quetico he has revealed what he was like as a youth, as a friend and a father. Over the years there have been many that have been affected greatly by the combination of Chuck Farnum and the Quetico woods, and I am only one. But I do know that I will never take forks, knives, plates, tent stakes or the worries of the outside world into the woods and waters of the Quetico because my Grandfather never did. And I know I that I will always look forward to new adventures in the Quetico and revel in our adventures of the past, thanks to him”.

It isn’t the number of years he’s canoed in Quetico or the number of trips he’s made that make Chuck Farnham extraordinary, it is the youthful enthusiasm that he has somehow maintained and nurtured. He still has a glint in his eye and an urge to explore and see what is around the bend, up the nearest creek or over the next hill. Although he and his travelling companions have ventured farther afield than most, they are well aware that they have only seen a small fraction of what is in Quetico. They have shown that, although we don’t even have to go very far to find adventure, we do have to be far more inventive and adventurous in exploring places where we have previously only canoed the easy and the obvious.

Bill Muir: Boundary Waters Botanist

Bill Muir

From 1971 to 1975, Bill Muir was the staff botanist at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Wilderness Field Station on Basswood Lake. For those five summers, Muir, a Biology professor at Carleton College, taught a field course in botany. During this time he travelled over two thousand miles with his students in the BWCAW and Quetico.

Muir introduced hundreds of students from a variety of small midwestern colleges to the joys of canoeing and studying plants in the Boundary Waters area. Many of them still return to this area, and a few of them now teach at the ACM Wilderness Field Station that is now located on Low Lake, just outside the BWCAW.

Although he travelled extensively throughout the Boundary Waters area, Bill Muir never saw any of it. Professor Muir was totally blind when he spent those five summers teaching a field course in the BWCAW and Quetico. He had never visited the Boundary Waters area before he became blind and therefore never saw the border country that he grew to love.

Muir slowly lost his sight from complications from diabetes and was totally blind by 1968. When he was asked in the fall of 1970 to work at the field station on Basswood Lake, he later recalled that: “It was ridiculous to even think about it.” However, his wife Libby assured him that she would act as his eyes, and their four children were ecstatic at the thought of spending their summers on Basswood Lake.

With his family’s support and encouragement, he accepted the job. In order to lead expeditions into the varied habitats along the Boundary Waters, Bill obviously had to be able to canoe, portage, and camp out for days and weeks at a time. He was able to accomplish this, to a large extent, with his wife’s assistance. He also hired a former field station student, George Wittler, as his assistant. George paddled stern and Bill and Libby alternated paddling bow. George went on to receive a Ph. D. in Biology, is now an Associate Professor of Biology at Ripon College, and has been director of the ACM Wilderness Station off and on since 1979.

Bill Muir described the summer botany courses at the ACM field school in a Carleton College publication in 1972. “Classes visit a wide variety of habitats, including evergreen and hardwood forests, forest edge, sites of former forest fires, rocky cliffs and outcroppings, marshes, bogs, and lakes and streams both high and low in their levels of living and dead organisms. Types of communities living in such locations are studied, and attempts are made to perceive inter-relationships and interactions. Much material usually is brought back to the station for further analysis in the laboratory.” Bill was definitely not content with staying at the lab and analyzing plant specimens. He insisted on travelling and experiencing plants in their natural environment. The difficulties associated with canoeing and camping were, in his eyes, minor compared with the rewards.

He learned to identify many plants by touch, and could also identify some plants by their smell. However, diabetes negatively affects the circulatory system, and this decreased his sense of touch. The Muirs’ had camped in northern Minnesota prior to his blindness and he was familiar with most of the Boundary Waters plants. He usually identified plants for students by listening to their description of the plant. He also felt that having students accurately describe a plant helped them to become more observant. Another blind biologist, Geerat Vermeij, recently explained why he insisted on doing field work in spite of his lack of eyesight. “All the world’s creatures live and evolve in a context. They are not little worlds unto themselves, isolated from one another and from the forces of wind, water, and earth. Instead, they persist, resist, respond, and perpetuate themselves in an environment rife with challenges and opportunities. Biologists seeking to document and explain patterns of evolution must penetrate and observe the world from the organism’s perspective. Much can be learned from books, but the knowledge thus gained is inevitably filtered through someone else’s facilities. There is simply no substitute for making one’s own observations in the wild.”

Bill Muir canoed into the BWCAW and Quetico so that he could make observations in the wild. He had a special love of bogs and he almost always took his students into them on their trips. Some of Quetico’s largest and most diverse bogs are along the Wawiag River and this area was a particular favourite of his. It was there that he first met Shan Walshe, another botanist with a strong affinity for bogs.

George Wittler recalled the first meeting of Bill and Shan. “We were camped in Kawa Bay near the mouth of the Wawiag River. On our first morning we paddled as a class up the river for group exploration. A small creek seemed interesting so we paddled up about half a mile. While looking at a small spruce bog and examining the unusual vegetation from the canoes we heard a rustling in the bog forest. Expecting a moose or similar beast to emerge, we waited very quietly in our canoes. Who should pop out right by us but this strange man with his hat pulled down over his eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, this person looked at us and said, “There is a spruce grouse in a black spruce that was so close to me, that I could hit it with a paddle.” The Muir and Walshe families developed a strong friendship, and Libby Muir and Margie Walshe still keep in touch.

Special adaptations were made so that Bill could travel through habitats, such as bogs, that he liked to explore. He used a 5 foot 8 inch long piece of aspen as a probe to test the depth of water and the surface of bogs and other surfaces that he was walking on. He called this all-purpose wooden shaft his “cudgel”.

Libby tried using small bells on her pants so that her movements could be heard by Bill. They found that having Bill hold onto the strap of her pack as she walked ahead of him on portages worked well. When traversing particularly difficult terrain, he would put his hand on Libby’s, or George Wittler’s, or on some other person’s shoulder. The person would then describe the obstacles, such as boulders, deadfalls, and low branches, as they moved along. With the assistance of others, Bill Muir could travel through most of the Boundary Waters’ habitats. He could then share his vast knowledge of plants and plant ecology with his companions and students.

Bill had a distinguished career as a researcher and college teacher before he came to the ACM camp. He received a degree in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin in 1955. While he was a graduate student he was the first person to successfully grow plant tissue cultures from individual cells. This was a major breakthrough that has lead to many advances in plant research.

He became a botany professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota in 1957, and he spent his entire career in their Biology Department. Everyone that knew Bill mentioned his obvious enthusiasm for biology and his outstanding ability to motivate students. He was also extremely successful in infecting other people with his enthusiasm for plants. At least 19 of his students went on to obtain graduate degrees in botany, and another 50 went on to careers in some aspect of botany. This is an astonishing number from a small college and a real testimony to his teaching abilities.
In 1964, Bill began to lose his vision and it became apparent that it would be difficult to continue teaching courses that required a substantial amount of lab work, including the use of microscopes. Libby, who already had a degree in Biology, then began attending his lectures to renew and update her knowledge of plants. She also returned to school and obtained a teaching certificate. She was then qualified to conduct the labs and generally act as her husband’s eyes and hands in the lab and classroom.

They successfully “team taught” botany courses at Carleton College from 1968 until Bill retired in 1984. This adaptive and innovative solution allowed Bill to continue to effectively teach for almost twenty years after becoming blind. As usual, the Muirs dealt with the complications from Bill’s diabetes with resourcefulness rather than assuming nothing could be done.

In 1976, the year after his last summer at the ACM camp, the Muirs built a cabin north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Bill, Libby and their four children constructed a simple, rustic cabin where they could live a simple life close to nature. There was no running water and they cut and split wood to heat the cabin. Bill once said that “light is provided for those inferiors that need it by kerosene lamps”.

They spent a lot of time, in both summer and winter, at this cabin that Bill named “Lycopodium Lodge” in honour of the club mosses that are so common in the north woods. Bill was with his family at Lycopodium Lodge when he died from complications of diabetes in 1985.

The summers at the ACM camp instilled a deep love for the Boundary Waters in Bill and Libby Muir. They worked long and hard for the preservation of the BWCAW and Quetico as wilderness areas. John Muir, the famous naturalist, writer, and conservationist was a distant relative of Bill’s and they shared the love of wild places. Bill testified before House and Senate committees in favour of limiting motor access to BWCAW lakes. He even testified against making exceptions for handicapped people, and in 1977 he stated that “when I am no longer able to paddle over Basswood Lake or portage down the Basswood River, then I will be happy to content myself with travel over and along more civilized waters.”

Libby Muir has continued to canoe in the Boundary Waters area. Last summer she continued her long tradition of taking a trip into the BWCAW and she plans on returning again this summer.

My memories of Quetico, those things that immediately come to mind, are almost exclusively visual. I can close my eyes and picture the bays of Basswood Lake. I can mentally paddle and portage down the Basswood River to Crooked Lake. Bill Muir also paddled these same waters. However, it is difficult for me to imagine how he experienced the lake and the river without their visual aspects.

There are undoubtedly unique impressions of Basswood that are experienced without the need of sight. The visual impact of a place is always mixed in with its sounds, smell, and “feel”. The sounds of rapids, of water lapping at the base of cliffs, of wind blowing through the large pines and of ravens’ wings overhead, are only vague in my memory but would have been foremost in his mind. He’d have been more aware of the flow of the water under the canoe, the feel of the lichen-encrusted cliffs, the touch of the wind on his face, and the smell of the different habitats.

Bill Muir learned how to identify more plants by touch than I know by sight. Just knowing this can spur me on to use my other senses more. This summer, I’m going to explore the trunks of trees with my hands, touch the cracks and indentations in cliffs, and feel the difference between granite, greenstone, and Knife Lake siltstone. I’m going to run my fingers over saw-tooth edges of poplar and birch leaves, and learn to distinguish between red, white, and jack pine needles by their shapes and textures.

I’m going to kneel down and smell moccasin flowers, twin flowers and others that I’ve looked at but have no idea of their odour. I’m going to crush the leaves of sweet gale and sweet fern and inhale their strong, pleasant smell. I’m going to listen to the sounds of water cascading over Silver Falls and the more muted sounds of small creeks meandering over rocks. Hopefully, I can still learn something from Bill Muir.

In 1972, Bill Muir wrote about his previous summer’s experience at the ACM camp: “At the conclusion of such an adventure one is not simply aware of this habitat or that. Rather, the traveler comes away with a sense of awe and reverence for the whole of nature, with its complex relationships, its harmonious transitions and its right to be.” Last summer, I went to the ACM Field Station on Low Lake and found a small but dedicated community of staff and students. They have been sending people into the BWCAW and Quetico since 1962 and they have compiled a staggering amount of information on the ecology of the Boundary Waters area.

The staff that I talked to knew about Bill Muir and were aware of the impact that he had on the school. The location is different than when Bill Muir worked there, but the emphasis on combining wilderness exploration and scholarship remains the same. This is a legacy that Bill Muir would be proud of.

Return to the Powell Homestead on Saganagons Lake

A few summers ago, Betty Powell Skoog returned to the homestead on Saganagons Lake in Quetico Park where she was born and spent the first fifteen years of her life. This beautiful site on the eastern end of the lake was home to three generations of Powells. During their half-century on Saganagons, five children were born and raised and three grandchildren also grew up here. One of these grandchildren, Betty Powell Skoog, wrote a marvelous book, A Life in Two Worlds, about her experiences on Saganagons Lake.

This cabin was built by Betty and her sister Janette on the Powell homestead over fifty years ago.

The book began as a way to make her memories about her childhood accessible to her children and grandchildren. She recorded her reminiscences on cassette tapes and eventually played some of them to Justine Kerfoot from Gunflint Lodge. Justine, a well-known author, had been a life-long friend of Betty’s mother Tempest Powell Benson. When Justine heard the tapes, she told Betty that her stories should be made available to a wider audience than just her own descendants.

What began as a desire to pass on stories about her mother and grandparents to her offspring, grew into a fascinating book. Betty is justifiably proud of her heritage and her story isa remarkable tale of a unique family in a unique setting. The Powells were the last family to live year-around in what is now Quetico Park. They experienced Quetico as residents rather than as visitors. They lived off the land by combining the income from trapping and guiding with the food they grew in a large garden and the animals they killed for food. They traveled mainly by canoe during open water and by dog team during the winter. Only during the latter part of their stay on Saganagons in the 1950’s did they use outboard motors or snowmobiles to any extent.

We sometimes forget that, until very recently,Quetico and the BWCAW were the home to the Ojibwa and to settlers in the early and mid 1900’s who lived among and with Ojibwa people. The Powells were contemporaries of Ottertrackís Benny Ambrose and Knife Lakeís Dorothy Molter. They were also distant neighbors to, among others, the Kerfoots, Plummers and Cooks on Gunflint Lake and the Madsens and Richardsons on Saganaga. It is ironic that, in order to maintain the shrinking natural environment that supported Native People for thousands of years and attracted settlers such as Jack Powell, the governments of Canada and the United States had to create wilderness areas where human activities are restricted.

Betty Powell Skoog is the last of those who knew Quetico Park as home rather than merely as a canoeist or park employee. This article concentrates on Betty Powellís memories of those activities that were necessary for the Powells to live as permanent residents in what is now part of Quetico Park. When the Powells lived on Saganagons, the entire eastern half of the lake was outside of Quetico. It was not until 1979 that the Park boundary was extended to include all of Saganagons Lake. The Powells hadnít been living on Saganagons for twenty years when this expansion, which made their homestead part of Quetico Park, occurred.

During their time on the lake, they trapped and guided in order to obtain enough money to buy necessary supplies but obtained most of their food from the land. They hunted moose and deer, snared snowshoe hare and partridge, had a large garden and a variety of domesticated animals, and gathered medicinal plants. They lived a lifestyle that was an interesting blending of the very different cultures and backgrounds of Mary Ottertail and Jack Powell.

Powells on Saganagons

In 1901, Jack Powell and Aquayweasheik (Mary Ottertail) were married on Basswood Lake. A few years later they moved to the east end of Saganagons Lake where they built a cabin and settled down. Aquayweasheik was Ojibwa and grew up on the Lac La Croix Reserve. Relatively little is known about Jack Powell other than he evidently was of Irish and English descent and came from Michigan. He worked at a variety of jobs in northern Minnesota and met Aquayweasheik while he was working at a logging camp on Basswood Lake. Betty remembers her Grandmother speaking Ojibwa and her Grandfather always speaking in English. Only after she left Saganagons did she realize that other families communicated in just one language rather than two.

The Powells had five children; Mike, Esther, Frank, William and Tempest. All were born on Saganagons except Frank, who was born in a trappers cabin when his parents were on their way to Winton, Minnesota to get supplies. Jack Powell and his son Mike were employed as Quetico Park rangers in 1917 and in the early 1920’s worked as fire rangers in Quetico. The Powell family lived year around on Saganagons until they moved to Saganaga in 1954.

Tempest, their youngest child, always loved being in the woods and became a guide on Saganaga and surrounding lakes in the summer and a trapper in the winter. She had three daughters who grew up as part of the Powell extended family on Saganagons. Tempest lived on Saganagons until 1950 when she married Irv Benson and moved to Saganaga. She would then take the two-and-a -half-mile portage from Saganaga to Saganagons almost daily so she could spend time with her children and her parents.

Betty recalls her mother guiding and carrying big square-stern canoes and often wondered what people thought when she threw a canoe on her shoulders and took it across a portage, or skinned and gutted a moose, or stretched a beaver, mink or otter skin. She remembers one of the men her mother guided saying ‘that woman could hold her own with any man’. When Ken Skoog went with Betty to Saganagons to meet her mother and grandparents, he was impressed with the ability of the Powell women to trap, hunt, fish, drive a dog team and generally do whatever was required to survive in the woods. He called them the ‘all-around women’ from Saganagons.

Living off the land on Saganagons

Trapping was the Powells source of income. In order to trap the area north and east of Saganagons they had to build and maintain four trapper cabins. Jack Powell built these cabins and spent a lot of time maintaining them. Betty noted that ‘it took four days, going real fast with sled dogs, to check all the cabins’. She also noted that they ‘were never locked and could be used by canoe parties, in any emergency, when passing through in the summer. Back then the food, blankets, snowshoes, traps or a gun could be left in a cabin, secure with the knowledge that nothing would be taken. ‘

The tradition of leaving items unlocked, common in isolated areas, continued until recently on an island on the west end of Saganaga called Red Tank Island. For many decades when they found themselves low on gas on the west end of the lake, Saganaga residents would refill their gas tanks from a large red tank and then replenish the tank the next time they went down the lake. This continued for decades until tourists simply obtained free gas and never bothered to re-fill the tank. When we arrived as Quetico Ranger on Saganaga in 1980, this long-standing tradition had recently been abandoned.

The Powellís were very self-sufficient and only went to town twice a year for groceries. This usually meant a trip by canoe or dog team to Winton, Minnesota. This was a treat for Tempest since she then had an opportunity to play with Esther Ahonen, a girl her age in Winton.

Although many miles and numerous portages were involved, up until the mid-1940’s, traveling to Winton to sell their furs and get groceries was the easiest option. When a gravel road was built north of the border from Fort William to the west, it became easier to take the furs out to a trading post known as McKechnies Mill. To get there they still had a long paddle down through Gunflint Lake east along the border to Rose Lake and north to the road. Once there, they could take a bus to Fort William.

In town, they bought rice, flour, sugar, tea, salt and sometimes got some butter or lard. Usually, however, sufficient lard was obtained by rendering bear fat and using that on bannock. They also got kerosene for lamps and batteries for the radio. To conserve batteries, the radio was used sparingly, mainly to listen to the news in order to find out what was going on in the world. The kerosene was used for light, but its use was rationed, and they primarily went to bed and got up based on the sun. Instead of hauling in expensive, heavy roofing paper from Winton, they used birchbark on the roofs. Jack Powell also would cut hay every fall to replenish the mattresses.

Many of their clothes were made by Grandma Powell on a treadle sewing machine. She made moccasins, jackets, and parkas from moose hide and other items from cloth bought in Winton. She also made rabbit skin blankets and boot liners from rabbit skins. Most of their camping equipment, such as tents and sleeping robes, was also homemade.

They had a large garden and they grew potatoes, carrots, rutabagas and cabbage. They also planted potatoes on the islands in Saganagons that had sufficient soil. Jack Powell, the main gardener in the family, called this his ‘wilderness farm. ‘These crops were stored in a root cellar under the main cabin. In the spring they collected birch sap and drank this as long as it lasted. They also picked and dried a large number of blueberries every fall and once every two years they made a trip to Whitefish Lake to gather wild rice. They would get together with the Plummers and the Cooks, who lived on Gunflint Lake, and travel with them east along the border and then north to Whitefish Lake. These trips combined practical food gathering with an opportunity to get together with families on Gunflint Lake.

To complete their ‘farm’, they also had chickens and a goat. For a few years they even had a cow and a bull which they brought to Saganagons from Winton. As you can imagine, getting a cow and a bull, as well as the raft they rode on, over the numerous portages was an incredible feat that is described in Bettyís book.

Their principal food was snowshoe hare and partridge. Betty and her sisters had rabbit snare lines that they would check daily. Consequently, much of the meat was snared in the vicinity of their home. They supplemented this with deer or moose which was usually shot by Grandma Powell. They only shot what they needed for food. Grandma Powell always insisted that animals could only be killed for a reason and if something was killed it had to be eaten. Betty said that when she was young she once shot a loon and her Grandmother made her boil it and eat it. She found out that loon is very unsavory and a valuable lesson was learned.

Betty had two younger sisters: Janette was three years younger and Minerva was born when Betty was nine years old. Since Janette was closest in age, they were constant companions who played games, set snares, trapped beaver and, when Betty was just twelve, built a log cabin together.

Neither Betty nor her sisters had any formal schooling other than a few government correspondence courses that her grandfather, who had only a third grade education, administered to them. They were fortunate, especially considering the negative experiences that other Native students had, that they avoided being sent to boarding school. They made up for the lack of formal education by learning daily the myriad skills required to live in the woods. Both grandparents were skilled storytellers and Grandma Powell was especially insistent on their learning about the spiritual values of her ancestors.

Betty remembers that there was often music in their house. Grandpa Powell liked to sing and also played the ‘bones’. Her Uncle Mike played the banjo, Uncle Frank the fiddle, her sister Janette the mandolin and Tempest played the butterbox accordion.

Return to Saganagons

During the summer of 1997, an archaeological survey of the area burned in the big 1995 fire was carried out. This burned area included almost the entire north shore of Saganagons Lake. Since we were close to the Powell homestead we went over to take a look at that area even though it was outside of the burn area. I was with Frank Jordan from Lac La Croix, and since he was a distant relative of Mary Ottertail, this stop was of special interest to him.

We landed on a small sand beach and at the back of the beach was a trail that led to log cabin. This cabin, built by Betty and Janette when Betty was just twelve, was now covered with Virginia creeper vines and looked serene but vulnerable. After the Powells left Saganagons, it had been used as a trapper cabin by Tempestís husband Irv Benson but had stood empty for the last few years. I was impressed that the trail, apparently taken by a large number of canoeists, stopped just short of the cabin door. People had obviously respected the privacy of the cabin owners and hadnít entered or done any apparent damage.

The main cabin, no longer standing, was located a few hundred metres to the north in what is now an open grassy field, but the outline of the cabin foundation was still visible. A large flat, grassy area was probably the location of the large garden. Robust rose bushes that stood about five feet tall grew at the back of the clearing. It was strange to imagine that a cow and a bull, chickens and goats once lived in this clearing. Three generations of memories linger at the Powell ‘wilderness farm’.

Two summers later, Betty and her husband Ken Skoog returned to the Powell homestead. They noticed on the paddle from Saganaga to Saganagons that many landmarks were hard to recognize after the fire. The beach seemed smaller than it used to be and the high hill behind the cabin, where Janette and Betty used to watch for approaching visitors, seemed to have shrunk. She noticed that the grapes her grandparents had planted were now growing wild. The tiger lilies she remembered so distinctly from her childhood were also growing wild. Since these flowers reminded her of Saganagons, Betty always had tiger lilies at her homes after leaving Saganagons and has them now at her home near Silver Bay.

Betty remembers having conflicting emotions at the homestead. “The happiest thing I saw their was when I got out of the canoe and walked up to the cabin and saw that the little creek that ran behind the cabin had been damned up by the beaver. There was now a little pond and there was a beaver house next to the cabin. The first thing I said to the people who went with us was ‘Oh look, grandma and grandpa have come back as beaver'”. Her grandparents never wanted to leave Saganagons and they wanted to live their whole lives there and be buried there. Betty noted that “their spirits have returned.”

A Raven’s Knowledge

 

I love watching ravens fly. They seem to delight in performing a wide variety of aerial acrobatics. Other birds seem to fly primarily for practical purposes: searching for food, avoiding predators, or simply moving from place to place. Ravens, however, often seem to cavort in the air with joyous abandon simply because it is fun. Since they don’t seem to rely on speed or manueverability to obtain food, it seems unusual that they would be such skillful flyers. Maybe they have found that flying can be used for play as well as for practical reasons.

A drawing of a raven in winter in the Boundary Waters area. (Mary Lambirth - Blackduck, Minnesota)

I have often seen them do a “barrel-roll”, and sometimes they even do two or three in quick succession. Ravens can even fly briefly upside down. Their most exuberant flights seem to be during their mating season in late winter and early spring. Then they can be seen chasing each other and performing acrobatic tricks in tandem.

While it is certainly understandable that their mating flights would be boastful and exuberant, they also do barrel rolls, swoops and flips at other times of year. They even seem to enjoy flying on those -30 C and -40 C winter days when no other birds can be seen in the frigid skies. Any bird that incubates eggs in April when cold nights and snow are not only possible, but very probable, has to be well adapted to the cold. Possibly their inky-black colour allows them to absorb more heat from the sun and is an adaption for winters in the north.

In the Boundary Waters area, ravens are on the southern edge of their range, but they are also found in the much colder Hudson Bay Lowlands, as well as Greenland and Siberia. They don’t go south for the winter; but stay in the north and rely on their intelligence, adaptability and omnivorous feeding habits to get through our long winters. Ravens don’t seem to merely survive the winter; they seem to thrive and even prosper in the cold.

Ravens are as at home in the Arizona desert as in the boreal forest. (photo by Marie Nelson)

Ravens are predominantly a northern bird. All northerners, no matter where in the world they live, have one bird species in common: the raven. Not only is this large black bird found all across northern North America, it is also found in Greenland, Iceland, and across northern Europe and Russia. The raven, Corvus corax, is at home in both Upsala, Ontario and Uppsala, Sweden.

In North America, ravens have extended their range even beyond the tundra, boreal forest and mixed forest. They are also found in mountainous areas and even in deserts. Consequently, ravens are in Ely, Nevada as well as Ely, Minnesota. In the mixed forests of the Boundary Waters area, the ravens range overlaps with that of its close relative, the common crow. The main difference between them is that the raven is much larger than the crow; has a larger, thicker beak; and has a wedge-shaped tail rather than the squared end of the crow’s tail. Ravens are common throughout the Boundary Waters area, but crows seem to be more plentiful in the BWCAW than in Quetico.

One biologist has said that ravens make a wider variety of sounds than any animal other than humans. The call that I have heard them make the most often is a deep call that sounds like “kraa” and is sometimes repeated many times. It seems similar to the “caw” call of the crow, but is much deeper and less strident. They also make a “clunk” or “thunk” sound that is unlike any other bird sound I have ever heard. In contrast to these one-note sounds, they can also make very soft, melodious sounds that make the raven the world’s largest songbird.

Their most striking and unusual sound is a bell-like note that I’ve heard a few times while they were flying in late winter. They also do spectacular dives and rolls during this time of year. These unusual sounds and aerial acrobatics may be related to their mating season, which also occurs in late winter. Ravens usually build their nests in trees but, when available, they nest on the side of cliffs. They apparently seek out cliff sites where they can build a nest under an overhang. A nesting site on the cliffs on the north shore of Quetico Lake has a large overhang that completely protects the nest. I first saw this wonderful Quetico Lake cliff nest in 1976 and it was still in use last year. Ravens mate as early as February and are on their nests in late March and April. Since they are on their nests when both snow and freezing rain can occur, nests with an overhang to protect both the incubating adult raven and its chicks is a huge advantage.

The raven plays a major role in the mythology of many Native American cultures. In Pacific Northwest mythology, the raven plays a central role, and is known as both a creator and a folk hero. Many Ojibwa and Cree tales from our area also feature ravens. In many of these tales ravens are “tricksters”, creatures that are capable of heroism and courage, but also of trickery and even deceit.

In early European cultures, ravens also played significant roles. In Norse mythology two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), flew off at dawn and observed what was happening in the far-flung Norse realm. They returned in the evening, perched on the shoulders of the Norse god Odin, and whispered to him what they had learned during their day’s travels. Information received from ravens, because they could observe and understand things that were beyond the comprehension of mere humans, was considered to be extremely valuable. In Ireland, the phrase “raven’s knowledge” means to know all and to see all.

Although ravens are no longer common in England, they were so abundant in London in the late 1600’s that the King was petitioned to get rid of them. Ravens were held in high esteem by many and there was opposition to this extermination plan. According to the book Ravens in Winter, the raven extermination was not completed because a family of ravens lived in the Tower of London and a “soothsayer advised the King that if he removed all the ravens from the Tower a great disaster would befall England and his Royal Palace would crumble into dust. The King, not wanting to tempt fate, decided to keep six ravens and appoint a Keeper.” They are still there today, but their wings are clipped to ensure that they don’t leave the Tower. The Tower ravens don’t successfully breed, but whenever one dies, it is replaced by another bird. Another centuries-old tale states that a raven’s head buried at the base of London Tower protects London from invasion.

A raven incorporated into a contemporary design for a canoe club in Atikokan, Ontario. (design by Lise Sorenson)

Ravens are both predators and scavengers. As predators, they kill frogs, snakes, mice, voles, young and wounded birds, eggs, as well as a variety of insects and other invertebrates. One naturalist has labeled ravens the “bikers of the bird world” because they “dress in black, are big, and they are mean”. I’m not sure what the “mean” reference is for , but they do occasionally act as predators on surprisingly large animals.

A few years ago, farmers near Dryden, Ontario (north of Atikokan) reported that ravens were killing their sheep and cows. Ravens were seen landing on the heads of these farm animals and driving their beaks into the eyes of their prey. A few hard, well-placed blows were reported to kill the animals. Ravens are evidently capable of killing domesticated animals as large as cows.

At the other end of the food spectrum, they also eat some plant foods, and have been observed consuming large amounts of blueberries. The extremely diverse diet of a Boundary Waters raven can include large and small mammals (in any state of freshness or decay), snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, minnows, crayfish, tadpoles, worms, insects, seeds and berries. They are omnivores and opportunists of the highest magnitude.

Ravens seem, however, to get the vast majority of their food by acting as scavengers. In the winter, they rely heavily on feeding on moose and deer carcasses. They seem to have a symbiotic relationship with wolves and have been reported to follow wolf packs. There have been reports of ravens apparently signalling the location of prey to wolves by circling over moose and calling loudly. Not only do wolves kill the animals, they also open the carcass so the ravens can get at the meat and organs. Ravens also commonly arrive quickly after human hunters have killed an animal. They also take advantage of animals killed by vehicles by flying along highway corridors and feeding on the road kills.

A raven's nest on a south-facing cliff on Quetico Lake.

Ravens are known for their intelligence,

Raven's nest in a transmission tower in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

 and many biologists consider them to be the most intelligent bird of all. They exhibit their intelligence in numerous ways. They have been observed opening clam shells by dropping them on rocks or pavement. They are also excellent mimics, not only of other birds, but also of the human voice.

The late Konrad Lorenz, a renowned animal behaviourist, had a pet raven. He once fed this raven after it had brought him a piece of laundry that it had obtained from a clothes line. The raven, thinking it had been rewarded for bringing laundry, made repeated raids on neighbour’s clothes lines. The raven kept bringing wet socks and undergarments until it realized it was not going to be rewarded again.

One of the fascinating things about ravens is their ability to thrive in towns and cities as well as in wilderness areas. The same species that nests on cliffs on Quetico Lake and near the top of old-growth white pines throughout the Boundary Waters also nests on a large steel electrical tower on a busy street in Thunder Bay. I see ravens all summer in Quetico, but we also commonly have ravens in our backyard in Thunder Bay. They habitually search for animals that have died of natural causes or been preyed upon in the wilderness, but they also routinely inspect the back of hunter’s or trapper’s half ton’s looking for morsels of meat. Always the opportunist, I once saw one fly across the road at the French Lake campground with a whole sandwich in its beak.

My Norse ancestors, like many Native American cultures, not only believed they could learn from these intelligent and adaptable birds, but, also wove them into their mythology and spirituality. Since ravens have also successfully made the transition between wilderness and human-dominated landscapes, maybe we also have more in common with these intriguing creatures than we think.

Pukak: Life Under The Snow

Winter is the time of year when everything seems to slow down in the Boundary Waters area. It is much quieter in the woods since most of the birds have left for warmer climates where food is more abundant in the winter. Animals o various sizes, from black bears to least chipmunks, have retreated to their dens and are silently spending the winter in hibernation or near-hibernation. The Pukak forms along the ground and is insulated by the overlying snow.

When we have a winter like last years, with a combination of extreme cold and deep snow, the animals that remain active have trouble getting around and difficulty finding enough food, staying warm, and surviving until spring. Some animals, particularly deer, can suffer high mortality over the winter. Even animals well adapted to deep snow, like moose and snowshoe hare have difficulty getting through the winter.

When you snowshoe or ski through the woods in mid-winter, the tracks of a variety of animals are very apparent. It’s always exciting to encounter the large tracks of moose, deer and wolf. In some areas, the tracks of snowshoe hares and red squirrels leave intricate patterns in the snow. Evidence of a wide variety of predators: including mink, weasels, marten, fisher, fox and even the occasional lynx, may be seen.

What is startling is the scarcity of tracks of small mammals. Tracks small enough to belong to a mouse, vole or shrew are seldom seen. When their tracks are found, they usually skitter across the snow for a short distance and then disappear into the snow. These small mammals are the most common mammals in the Boundary Waters area. A study of the small mammals of Quetico was conducted in the mid 1970’s by David Nagorsen from the Royal Ontario Museum. His team found two species of chipmunks and thirteen species of land mammals smaller than chipmunks. They located and identified three species of mice, five of shrews, four of voles, and just one species of lemming.

It seems surprising that since at least fifteen species of chipmunks, mice, shrews, voles, and lemmings live in the BWCAW and Quetico, that evidence for them is so hard to find in the winter. The small size of these mammals makes them very susceptible to the cold, and they have to find a way to avoid the cold if they are to survive our long winters. Most of the predator tracks that we see in the winter are made by animals searching for these plentiful but elusive small mammals. Where do they go that makes finding sign of their existence so hard to find, and how do they get through the winter? Some of them simply hibernate or spend most of the winter in insulated nests. There are three known species of mice in the Boundary Waters area. Two of them, the woodland jumping mouse and meadow jumping mouse, are primarily seed eaters and they spend the winter in hibernation. The most common mouse, and the second most common small mammal in Quetico, is the deer mouse. Deer mice, and both the least chipmunk and the eastern chipmunk, store up food in the fall and spend the winter in insulated nests where they huddle together for warmth and eat their stored food. They also occasionally venture out to collect seeds and to seek out any other food they can find.

There are, however, ten species of shrews, voles and lemmings that are active throughout the winter. They have found a way to use their small size to their advantage. The snow, one of the hazards to larger animals, becomes an aid to their survival. They literally use the blanket of snow on the ground as their blanket; it is the insulation that protects them from the cold. Their winters are spent under the snow, in a weird and fascinating place known as the pukak. Pukak is an Inuit word for the complex layer of ice crystals and open space that forms at the base of the snow pack.

The formation of the pukak begins with the first snowfall that covers the ground vegetation. Herbs and other small plants keep some of the snow from coming in contact with the ground and this causes small openings or cavities to form. When the snow reaches a depth of about one foot, the temperature of the pukak layer stabilizes at just a degree or two over freezing. The snow above the pukak layer insulates it from the cold air above and traps some of the warmth that always radiates from the ground below. The warmth from below causes the formation of ice crystals and the natural small openings and tunnels formed by the vegetation are enlarged. These natural openings are joined together to form tunnels by small mammals in the pukak. The tunnels allow these animals to travel long distances under the snow. They undoubtedly use these tunnels to locate food. Seeds keep well at pukak temperatures and some herbs stay succulent and green all winter long.

The pukak forms where there is sufficient ground level vegetation to allow openings to form. Where there is little or no vegetation, such as on the ice surface of ponds and lakes, no pukak layer forms. Pukak layers vary considerably, depending on the habitat and the conditions as the snow accumulates. You can check out the pukak by taking a shovel and digging in the snow down to the ground. Make the cavity big enough so that you can crouch or lay down and see along the ground into the pukak. A flashlight will show the natural caverns and openings caused by the vegetation and heat from the ground. A mowed lawn will have virtually no pukak but most areas with undisturbed vegetation will have a pukak layer.

When the snow reaches a depth of about a foot, even the mid-day sun causes only a faint glow to reach the pukak. Because of the dark, animals in the pukak have to rely mainly on their hearing and sense of smell. It is always relatively warm in the tunnels, but it is also damp and dark.

A wide variety of insects and small mammals inhabit the pukak. Many insects overwinter in the pukak. When the snow accumulates over them, they exist in an environment just a few degrees below freezing. This would be a safe place to spend the winter except for the small mammals, primarily shrews, that eat insects and insect larvae and are active in the pukak all winter. When we think of mammals in the Boundary Waters area, shrews, mice, voles and lemmings are definitely not the first animals to come to mind. The variety of small mammals in the pukak, however, are as intriguing as they are small. The smallest mammal in our area, the pygmy shrew, is also the smallest mammal in North America and among the smallest mammals in the world. It is only 3 to 4 inches long, including the tail, and weighs less than a dime. Despite its size, this tiny mammal is a predator. It eats mainly beetles and other insects, but also preys on spiders and earthworms.

Shrews generally have the smallest bodies and the fastest metabolism of all the mammals. The pygmy shrew, being the smallest, has the highest metabolism of all. It’s heart beats at the astonishing rate of 1500 beats a minute. It has to eat almost constantly in order to maintain its high metabolic rate, and shrews can starve to death after only a few hours without food.

The short-tailed shrew is another pukak inhabitant. This large and fairly common shrew is unusual because its saliva is toxic, allowing them to kill prey that is larger than themselves. They have been known to kill garter snakes and even young rabbits in the summer.

A dead shrew found on the surface of the snow near French Lake in March. The cause of death is unknown.

The most common shrew in Quetico, and the third most common small mammal, is the masked shrew. It is found in large numbers in most habitats but seems to prefer wet meadows and acid bogs. Like all shrews in our area, it is thought to mainly eat insects, but has a varied diet that is known to include vegetation and the young of mice, voles and other shrews.

These fascinating and poorly understood animals roam the pukak all winter, preying on insects and the occasional small mammal. The pukak is an ideal place for shrews in the winter because its constant temperature is only a few degrees below freezing. The darkness of the pukak is not a problem for shrews since they have poor vision and rely to a large extent on their sense of smell.

The most common mammal in Quetico and the BWCAW is one that, in spite of their large numbers, are only occasionally seen in the spring, summer or fall. Since they inhabit the pukak layer, they are virtually never seen by humans in the winter. The redbacked vole is a plump, mouse-sized animal with a broad chestnut stripe that runs from its forehead to its rump. Like other voles, the closely related lemmings, and shrews, they are active all winter in the pukak. They are extremely important to the ecology of this area because of their abundance.

A redback vole on a Quetico campsite in September.

Although red-backed voles were just one of fifteen species of small mammals found in the Quetico study, they comprised about half of the total animals captured. These voles were found in all of the habitats studied, everywhere from wet meadows to dry upland slopes. Red-backed voles and other small mammals are near the bottom of the food chain and are the main sources of food for many predators. There are also three other species of voles in Quetico; the meadow vole, the heather vole and the rock vole. Each species is found primarily in specific habitats and they are far less common than the red-backed vole. Along with the Boundary Waters only lemming, the southern bog lemming, they are important inhabitants of the pukak.

Populations of these small mammals fluctuate greatly from year to year. They can quickly recover from low populations because they can have many litters in one year and commonly have five or six young in each litter. The females of some vole species are ready to breed when they are just six weeks old.

These high birth rates are balanced by a high mortality rate. Most shrews, mice, voles and lemmings are thought to live only about one or two years on the average. These abundant animals are an important food source for weasels, red fox, and martens, as well as for a variety of hawks and owls. The populations of these varied predators are, to a large extent, dependant on the populations of the small mammals that are their prey. Snow, especially deep snow, helps to protect pukak dwellers from large predators like lynx, red fox, and wolves. However, red fox have been observed jumping into the air and coming down on their front feet to pin mice and voles to the ground. They apparently use their acute hearing to precisely locate these small mammals below the snow and are able to capture them in the pukak even though they can’t see them.

Even smaller predators, like marten and mink, are not small enough to hunt in the pukak layer. Weasels, however, have the extremely long, slender bodies that allow them to follow their prey through the narrow runways under the snow. Unlike the small mammals they are hunting, weasels are not permanent occupants of the pukak. They can enter or leave the pukak by simply burrowing through the snow. They also use the ventilation shafts that are built by pukak dwellers in order to get fresh air down to the pukak. The weasels’ slender bodies allow them to use these shafts to gain easy access to their prey.

Some winters have very little snow, and those are the hardest on pukak dwellers. If there is only a few inches of snow, the pukak does not fully develop since the heat from the ground is lost into the air instead of being trapped in the snow by a thick insulating blanket. If there is less than a foot of snow, the full insulating value of the snow is not felt and the extreme cold of mid-winter can penetrate into the pukak. During winters of average or greater than average snow depth, the most perilous times are usually at the beginning and end of winter. Early winter, before enough snow has accumulated, and late winter, when most of the snow has melted, are times when cold is the greatest threat. An early or late winter temperature of 0 F. is much harder on pukak dwellers than -40 F. in mid-winter when the snow depth protects them.

Another dangerous time is during periods of very warm weather when the rapid melting of snow can cause flooding of the pukak. This forces animals out from under the snow and they become vulnerable to large predators like marten and red fox. Owls and hawks can also prey on animals that were previously hidden by the snow. For most of the winter, and especially during the extreme cold of mid-winter, the pukak has many attributes that are favourable for creatures small enough to take advantage of them.

The small mammals in the Boundary Waters area are able to survive our long harsh winters by using the snow to their advantage. They evade the extreme mid-winter cold by using snow as a blanket, and the earth as constant source of low heat. The animals that are small enough to live in the pukak have replaced the bitter wind and extreme cold with a constant coolness.

In an essay entittled “Coming of the Snow”, Sigurd Olson wrote that beneath the snow of the bog he was snowshoeing across was a “jungle of grassy roots and stems, tiny mountains of sphagnum, forests of heather, the whole interwoven with thousands of twisting burrows of meadow mice. … Theirs was a world removed, an intricate winter community, self-sufficient and well organized.”

The pukak, like all habitats, also has its limitations. Pukak dwellers are restricted to places where their narrow corridors under the snow can take them. The plant food available in the pukak is limited to what was there at the end of the growing season. Since no new food is being produced to replace what is consumed, the food supply declines throughout the winter. The blanket of snow that protects them from the cold also effectively blocks most of the light from entering their domain. The long winter nights above the snow are expanded and altered below the snow. In the pukak, animals are only vaguely aware of the sun and are oblivious to the stars, moon or northern lights. Although we share the same environment, their winter world is so different from ours that it is hard to even imagine.