Excerpts from chapters in Quetico: Near to Natures Heart.

Prelude (excerpt)


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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Two (excerpt)


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

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

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

Exploration and Imagination

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

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

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


Chapter Eleven (excerpt)


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

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

A Bit of the Tropics in the Quetico-Superior

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

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


Chapter Sixteen (excerpt)


Geothermal Heat and a Blanket of Snow

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

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

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

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

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

The Mouse and the Moose

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

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


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

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

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



  1. Hello
    My life time friend Scotty Baxter of Thunder Bay – grew up in Atikokan – sent me your book Quetico
    Quetico is dear to your heart – so is mine – I was raise in the woods across the highway from Nym Lake – at Fire Lake – moved there 1957 – so Quetico being in my backyard was part of me.
    Lived at Burdette Lake north of Emo prior to that – born in Fort Frances 1946
    Worked Portage Crew from 1964 to 69
    Ross Williams was Park Superintendant – this was years before many of the people you mention
    Knew many of the old timers – all passed away
    Worked and lived as a timber scaler in Camp 111 until 1973 – went to BC – worked Haida Gwaii for 12 years as logging engineer – later on Vancouver Island

    I am currently writing down all of my memories from that time and recalled finding two small cabins along the east shoreline 1968 – may be destroyed by now
    They of course were just low 1′ rectangled mounds from the long rotted log walls – covered in moss and mature trees – barely noticeable – I dug a small hole in the corner of one and discovered what I assumed to be 2 led musket balls – they were encrusted with an oxidised whitish shell. don’t know what I did with them. Never got back and told any one about them – there has to be some historical significance I used to offer all my findings to the French lake museum but were often stolen from the show cases
    There was a temporary residence building lived in by campsite attendant Eugine Borgoine (now long deceaced) frenchman like Emile Thevierge (also an attendant / handyman)
    The cabins were near the shoreline just north of his place. probably gone by now.
    I was reading that you spent 6 summers conducting Archaeological research in Quetico – so your the guy to tell this to. There are other sites as well – another time maybe
    I helped Wibur into the boat at Prarie Portage for his first trip down Basswood Lake to Cabin 16 – He had his life jacket tied on tight and very nervous about being out on the water. Bernice wasn’t with at the time. He is from the farm country west part of Rainy River District – not used to water
    Knew Carl and Lillian Johnson (good friends) of Lac La Croix Ranger Station – they lived in the log building then – before Joe and Vera’s time
    Gary Isberg was in charge of Prarie Portage at the time – he and Bruce Littlejohn did Portage Crew before me.
    Attended the 100th year birthday Celebration of Quetico at French Lake and Atikokan Hall – I think you were MC and mentioned my name – thanks for that
    I was with Bob Asselin and Gordon McCuaig also Portage Crew from that era
    Bob was the Junior Ranger Super at French Lake for a number of years – buildings were across the highway from Campsite entrance
    Let me know what you think of the cabins

    Bob Sullivan

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