Click to see the full picture

"Dog portage between the Kaministikwia River and Dog Lake", (1825) from "Views from Upper Canada Along the McKenzies" by George Back courtesy National Archives of Canada.

Boundary Waters

By paddle: 397km; By air: 282km.

Satellite photograph of the Boundary Waters from Grand Portage (Minnesota) to Fort Frances (Ontario) (courtesy NASA)

Scale: 1pixel=1km

Highway 61, Grand Portage, Minnesota.

Highway 61, Grand Portage, Minnesota.

Because it is so beautifully rugged and wild, it is both disappointing and relieving to leave Lake Superior. The welcoming shore of the small town of Grand Portage in Minnesota nestles a modest reconstruction of the great fur trading hub of the North West Company from the 1790's. With its knowledgeable staff wearing period costumes, beavering away making canoes, furniture, shelters and meals with only the resources available from that age, it leads you to hope that the Grand Portage itself (a 13.6km trail from the lake's edge to the Pigeon River, bypassing major falls and rapids on that river) will be a Disneyland-style ride through an historic Fantasyland. Nope, it's a shoulder-bruising, foot-blistering, bug-biting, groin-groaning yomp along a sometimes-rough trail to a miserable campsite that doesn't live up to its romantic historical name, Fort Charlotte.

Tip: Discard all non-essentials before starting the Grand Portage. It's very "Grand" indeed.

Tip: Don't wear neoprene socks on the Grand Portage!

Ahhh! But it's so rejuvenating to sooth your aching (rubber-burned) feet in the cooling waters of the beautiful Pigeon River. Tomorrow's paddle up the small, meandering river, set in its perfect miniature valley, looks like an idyllic antithesis to the big lake. Wrong! There's a canoe-thrashing headwind, shallow rapids that mean hours of wading, and to top it off, a "short" two kilometre portage through mud and scrubby bush, over, under and around fallen trees. Come back Lake Superior—all is forgiven!

Making peace with Quetico, Basswood Lake.

Making peace with Quetico, Basswood Lake.

After that, the Boundary Waters, aka Quetico, have no chance of making it up to us. To make matters worse, we had arranged to meet a friend in Fort Frances on the 13th of July. Looking at the maps in Thunder Bay, and given the rate we had been crossing them, it seemed like we had enough time. But that was on the lake: this landscape is something entirely different. There are countless portages (hardly any of which appear on our 1:250,000 scale maps,) oppressive lakes, sticky, sweaty, buggy nights, the stress of trying to make an unmakable appointment, and thirteen year-old girls from summer camp, looking like the soaked muskrat that hitched a lift, who seem to take it all in their sandaled stride. It's fortunate that there are no towns and there's virtually no Canadian road access to the area or we might have quit. With the trials of the Grand Portage and Pigeon River over, days get successively easier as you adopt the rhythm of the broadening landscape. But no! Quetico, you can't fool us with your delicate waterfalls, archetypal Canadian vistas, idyllic campsites, and soothing loon calls—we know you're mean at heart!

Tip: Don't rigidly follow a schedule—it's no fun and falling behind can be very demoralising (and on open water, potentially dangerous.)

Our Itinerary

DateFromToDistance (paddle/air)
05 JulCampground, Grand Portage, Minnesota
(16 299161E 5314981N)
Fort Charlotte, Pigeon River
(16 289032E 5320622N)
13.6/11.6km
06 JulSecond day on the Grand Portage.
07 JulFort Charlotte, Pigeon River
(16 289032E 5320622N)
Portage end, South Fowl Lake
(16 276959E 5325121N)
18.5/12.9km
08 JulDay off at South Fowl Lake.
09 JulPortage end, South Fowl Lake
(16 276959E 5325121N)
Rose Lake
(15 690235E 5329838N)
40.0/34.2km
10 JulRose Lake
(15 690235E 5329838N)
Island, Clove Lake
(15 664048E 5334263N)
34.5/26.6km
11 JulIsland, Clove Lake
(15 664048E 5334263N)
Ottertrack, aka Cypress, Lake
(15 644081E 5338787N)
34.0/20.5km
12 JulOttertrack, aka Cypress, Lake
(15 644081E 5338787N)
Bayley Bay, Basswood Lake
(15 613043E 5324282N)
37.0/34.3km
13 JulBayley Bay, Basswood Lake
(15 613043E 5324282N)
Island, Crooked Lake
(15 595530E 5338727N)
37.0/22.7km
14 JulDay off at Crooked Lake.
15 JulIsland, Crooked Lake
(15 595530E 5338727N)
Island, Lac La Croix
(15 565899E 5354002N)
39.0/33.3km
16 JulIsland, Lac La Croix
(15 565899E 5354002N)
Little Vermillion Lake
(15 543699E 5347689N)
39.0/23.1km
17 JulLittle Vermillion Lake
(15 543699E 5347689N)
Anchor Islands, Rainy Lake
(15 513607E 5380646N)
61.5/44.6km
18 JulAnchor Islands, Rainy Lake
(15 513607E 5380646N)
Fort Frances
(15 472882E 5384498N)
43.0/40.9km

All coordinates are UTM/NAD83.

Hitch-hiking muskrat, Brûlé Narrows, Rainy Lake.

Hitch-hiking muskrat, Brûlé Narrows, Rainy Lake.