Our second big summer trip was 1974. Al took Pat, Dave, and me canoeing in Quetico, the provincial park just over the border of Minnesota, accessed by going to Ely, paddling through a few lakes to a border wilderness border crossing, and then into the Canadian side where no motors are allowed.
At a rest stop in Michigan, we posed for pictures in the leather visors I had made for each of us… the “Jones Canoeing Company”.
The first afternoon, after crossing into Ontario at Prairie Portage (longingly wishing we could use the train track portaging system there), we stopped for late lunch at the isthmus between, I believe, Burke Lake and Sunday Lake… that was a pretty darn good paddle for a first day anyway… after Pat started cooking up lunch we decided to just stay there, and we got tents pitched.
Around that time, a couple came down the little rivulet and stopped to visit. They had a huge black dog, maybe a Newfoundland? They told us that there were bears in the area, and that they had gotten used to being able to steal from people at the site, and that we should probably not stay there, but rather camp on an island… and at the least, bear-bag and hang our food high.
They went on their way, and Dave and I started playing around the area… we tested what we’d learned about “lining a canoe” up the creek — using ropes at bow and stern, keeping the stern a little closer to shore so the bow is being pulled away from the shore by the current, and using the stern line as the motivating force to make the canoe move upstream… quite pleasant compared to portaging, at least in a gentle current. Then Dave paddled solo around the bottom end of Sunday Lake while I climbed the rock face to the bluff above our camp.
Just as I got to the top, a huge black furry face poked out of the bushes a few feet from me. I thought “those people left their dog behind!!”… and then it came farther out. No… not a dog… a big black bear. About then I hear clanking from camp, look down the hill and see my mom beating on a pot trying to scare two bear cubs out of our packs, where they were unconcernedly rooting around, tearing, finding our food. I’m between the mother bear and her cubs!!
I back away slowly and I sing-song “Dave? Oh David… could you please paddle over near the rock face here? Uh… quickly? ’cause there’s a really big bear right here!!” I start to climb backwards down the rock face, watching momma bear, who is watching my momma bear trying to scare her cubs away… and Dave gets there, and I climb in, and we paddle to the shore trail and run back to camp and help Pat and Al shoo the cubs away.
Dang, they’ve gotten our bacon, our eggs, and our Carnation hot chocolate!! Treats for the first couple of days!
Well, our visitors were right, this is not a good campsite. We pack everything into the canoes up at the edge of Sunday lake, and we paddle until we find an island to camp on for our first night.
I’ll tell more of this trip another day, but two things about the trip and bears:
On our last day, we got up very early, and paddled back through Basswood lake (I think!) at dawn… people were camped all along the shore there… and we counted 13 bears happily raiding all their food… I think I even remember one bear having found food in a waterproof drybag weighted down underwater about 10 feet from shore! It seemed like at least some of the paddlers were awake in their tents… just hoping the bears would go away soon.
And, for years I thought I’d been relatively safe from that momma bear once I started climbing that steep rock face to Dave in the canoe… and then I watched a National Geographic video of bears on the rainforesty Western shoreline of Vancouver Island running sideways along moss covered steep rock faces at full speed, like it was nothing to them… momma could have had me any time she wanted.
Right after she took this photo of her brother, Pat slipped and fell into the water with her pack (and her cigarette). Fortunately not with the camera, which Al had by then and documented her downfall.
Wilderness canoeing became a staple travel mode. With Al leading most of the trips, David and I would spend about 75 days over the next four Summers, padding close to a thousand miles together in the 17′ Grumman aluminum canoe I still have and use.