Quetico Park People

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

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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’

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.

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.”