Paddling to the McNiece Lake Pines

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

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

Large, mature white pines on McNiece Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paula Hill admiring a very large white white pine.

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

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

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

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

Andy Hill sitting around an evening campfire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Nice article-I was hoping for many more pictures of the old growth white pines and red pines!

  2. James
    More photos will help make it a better article and I will add a few more to the article. My book has a chapter on the pines on McNiece and that has more photos in it and has more info on the pines as well.

  3. Enjoyed reading your article. It took me back to memories of many canoe trips in the Quetico, particularly to Lake Argo and the poet lakes.

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