ONTARIO’S QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK — After dinner, we shuffle down the sand beach to the point, carrying our little camp chairs. It’s time. Time to build a modest fire on the beach and watch another day in this 1.2-million-acre wilderness slip into night.
In the eastern sky, the remnants of a double rainbow rise from the far shoreline. The rain somehow missed us but gave us the rainbows. Susan lights the birchbark, and the fire flickers to life. We settle back, running our fingers through the cool sand. Across the lake, billowing heaps of cumulus catch the last pink rays of sunlight.
Nobody else is around. No pots clink from across the bay. No late paddlers go stroking by. It has been this way for most of our nine days here in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Unlike the neighboring Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the south, which attracts about a quarter of a million visitors a year, Quetico sees only about 10,000 paddlers per year.
Some days, we see nobody beyond our party of six. Other days, maybe one or two groups, usually at a distance. It’s quiet out here.
We come here each June for a week or more when the walleyes are hungry. We always catch plenty of fish, but this year has been remarkable. We figure we have caught a couple dozen walleyes over 25 inches long. A 30-incher, a 29, a 28, 27s and on down. We owe most of that success to experience. We have come to know the good lakes and the most productive spots on those lakes.
Some lakes hold amazing numbers of walleyes but none of great size. Two of us caught 60 of these 15- to 18-inchers in a little over two hours one day. We thought we were doing well. Then, another day, two of our friends caught 46 of them in 45 minutes. Two others caught 35 in half an hour. “Giggle-fishing,” somebody calls it. All of this good fortune in a park that allows only artificial baits and requires barbless hooks.
Along with the walleyes come marauding northern pike. They hit our jigs and plastic worms and make powerful runs. At least a half-dozen of these pike are in the 40-inch range, 20-pound fish that are difficult to land from a canoe. We carry no nets. Sometimes, we just paddle to shore and land the monsters there.
It requires work to travel this country, and we happily pay that price. Well, not happily when we’re trying to extract our boots from suck-hole muck on some obscure portage. Or stopping to clear fallen trees from a trail so we can carry our canoes through. But happily in a cosmic sense, because we know the grunt work of portaging, along with the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums, all help to keep the crowds at bay.
While we love the fishing, we come to this Canadian wilderness for far more. It is a profound experience — every time — to be immersed in the natural rhythms of a northern summer. One evening earlier in the trip, on the same beach, we watched a painted turtle come ashore as if prospecting for a place to lay her eggs. She made three or four of those exploratory trips without ever depositing an egg in the sand.
As the turtle explored, a herring gull hovered overhead and made passing swoops near the turtle. Perhaps the gull was hoping for a meal of turtle eggs. Perhaps another day, the gull would get that meal.
Meanwhile, a few yards offshore that same evening, a beaver swam back and forth. We had seen drag-marks in the sand earlier where a beaver had pulled freshly cut willows down to the water and probably back to its feed bed. We guessed the beaver wanted to come ashore for more willows, but our presence likely dissuaded him.
Beaver, turtle, gull, fire, rainbows, sand, sky. We are just visitors here, passing through, lucky to witness the dynamics of life in a land still lightly touched by humans. We feed the fire for a long time, then finally head to our tents and leave the beach to the wild things.
We are just visitors here, passing through, lucky to witness the dynamics of life in a land still lightly touched by humans.