Venture: Quetico Provincial Park
Over water, the cry of the common loon stretches for miles.
A crisp, lonely wail like a coyote, then a tremolo of hysterical laughter. Finally, its territory marked and friends contacted, the loon will glide back into the abyss, leaving the northern wilderness to its solitude, its silence and stillness.
For seven nights last month, while canoeing the wilderness of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, this was how I fell asleep.
They tell of Canada's wild spaces in picture books. Legends speak of its remoteness, its untouched beauty, a size that will dwarf you. You can't really grasp these things until you enter the backcountry and fall asleep to the wail of loons, followed by absolute silence.
West of Lake Superior and north of Minnesota's famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Quetico is a one of eight wilderness parks in the province. Its 1.2 million acres cover part of the Canadian Shield, a primordial blanket of bedrock shredded ages ago by glaciers into a series of dense forests, drinking-water lakes and stone outcroppings that would take you a lifetime to explore.
"My favorite part is being so cut off from civilization - no cell phones, no music," said my friend T.J. Guzzo, who's been to Quetico seven times and guided our trip in July. "Some trips, I've gone up there and not seen anybody."
Quetico's designation as a wilderness park means the interior has no amenities except hand-hewn fire rings at designated campsites and a few remnants of the hermit fur traders who once trapped the banks of a thousand secret lakes. It's accessible at four points by canoe and two by car.
Some adventurers fly in on tiny floatplanes to wilderness cabins, but most take a portage trip, in which you canoe around and then carry gear over small trails to access new lakes. Five friends and I opted for a portage, taking a week's worth of supplies in three lightweight fiberglass canoes built for speed and maneuvering tight waters.
We paddled 65 miles, mostly with a driving wind and whitecaps, eastward from the Beaverhouse Lake put-in to Nym Lake.
Because bad weather, twisted ankles and other catastrophes surround every step, this isn't a trip for the weekend warrior. You need a solid knowledge of outdoor safety and orienteering, as well as gear that will hold up in tougher conditions than an overnight hike in the Hocking Hills.
That said, a handful of outfitters based around the park rent gear, help plan your route, suggest jump rocks and fishing holes, and drop off your party at a park entrance. If you're not taking a pro guide, offered at a daily rate by many companies, the rest is up to you: reading maps, rationing food, staying the course.
Like all things worth fighting for, the rewards are splendid.
"I've never taken the same trip twice," Guzzo added. "It's always nice to mix it up, because every lake offers something different."
Absolutely nothing in the Midwest approaches the virginity of the landscape, and few things in the world rival its beauty. Each night you camp on the rock-studded shores of a small lake surrounded by birch and jack pines that serrate a sky bigger than anything you've ever seen.
While paddling, you can dip a cup into the water and drink it. No filters or pills - just the cool, crisp taste of a place nothing has spoiled.
Wildlife viewing is outstanding. Black bear, moose, fisher, bobcat and other secretive critters all live throughout the park, and the lakes offer bountiful smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye and pickerel. One evening, our group saw a family of mink running through camp - and later caught a stringer of two- to three-pound bass for dinner.
While more of an accomplishment than a vacation, this was the most rewarding trip of my life.
Quetico Provincial Park
Eight Tips for a Better Trip
Outfitters near Quetico Provincial Park can help you plan a trip. While you're getting ready, here are a few things to remember.
Convenience' sake. Don't stress about pack weight. If you're worried about carrying heavy things, take the extra comforts and opt for shorter, easier portages. We left our binoculars at home and rued it every day.
Map it out. Each canoe should have a map in a waterproof bag. This is helpful if you get lost or want to split up for day trips.
Sweet, sweet DEET. Bring high-powered bug spray - and plenty of it. You won't care about chemical hazards when you're being swarmed by mosquitoes or black flies.
Watch the weather. Dress in breathable layers and prepare for nights when temperatures can drop more than 30 degrees.
High and dry. In the canoe, wear quick-dry, half-zip pants, Crocs or sandals and a wicking top layer. Don't skimp on rain gear. For portages, pack hiking boots at the top of your pack.
Forced relaxation. Always plan one more layover day than what you think you'll need. You deserve it.
No glove, no love. Wet hands and constant motion means blisters that can leave you in pain during paddles. Fingerless bike gloves with padded palms are perfect.
Box it up. Quetico rangers and guides push barbless hooks, which help reduce fish mortality. Keep a separate box of crunched lures or flies specific for this trip.
Extra special extras. In addition to your basic gear, bring 50 feet of rope and three carabiners. You'll use them 10 times by week's end.
Day Tripper: Quetico Provincial Park
Location: Atikokan, Ontario, Canada
Distance from Columbus: 1,100 miles (about 18 hours by car)
Size: 1,853 square miles
Gearing up: Canoe Canada Outfitters, based in the small town of Atikokan, is a great resource for trip planning, canoe and gear rental, guided excursions and fly-in vacations. Minus basic camp gear and food, you can outfit a six-day portage trip for about $300 per person. Check CanoeCanada.com for rates and services.
What I liked: Seclusion, fresh water, fantastic fishing, breathtaking views
What I didn't: Bugs, tough portages, 40 mph winds
For more outdoor adventures, click to the Venture blog