Janice Matichuk’s home in Cache Bay
The author of the recently-released biography, Her Island: The Story of Quetico’s Longest Serving Interior Ranger, reflects on the life and the charisma of an extraordinary woman.
The Cache Bay Ranger Station is a rustic cabin located on a small, rocky island in the far reaches of Saganaga Lake on the Minnesota and Ontario border. It stands as the southeastern entry point to the Quetico Provincial Park. It’s where park staff live for the season, and where, in most years, canoe parties check in at the beginning of their Quetico adventure.
No matter the year, there aren’t many people who come in and out of the front door at the ranger station. But in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed the U.S.-Canada border and kept the Cache Bay Ranger Station closed for the season, almost no one entered the building.
One person who did not enter through this door, for the first time in 35 years, was Janice Matichuk. It was not just the pandemic or even the border closure that kept Matichuk away from Cache Bay this summer. The longest serving interior ranger in the history of Quetico, Matichuk was diagnosed with brain cancer in June of this year. She died two months later on August 5. She was 66.
Many readers may have had the opportunity to meet Matichuk during a trip through Cache Bay. If you did, you can likely remember the circumstances. You might recall her laugh, or her natural curiosity about your trip. Matichuk made it point to get to know the paddlers who entered through Cache Bay. Quetico was her passion. She wanted to learn from you as much as she wanted to share her own stories. Her personality was simultaneously strong and tender. Above all else, when it came to paddlers who visited Quetico, she was inquisitive and interested.
Though she will be remembered by many for her ability to engage in lengthy conversations, Matichuk did not mince words or act delicately when it came to protecting the park and the people who visited it. She saved multiple lives in her decades working at Cache Bay. She made headlines with harrowing rescues on the mighty Sag, the deepest and largest of all the lakes in the BWCAW, and among the deepest in all of Quetico. Until the day she passed away, she had an edge of toughness in everything she did, though it did not define her. Instead, friends and colleagues speak first of her kindness.
Among those friends is Tom McCann, a northeastern Minnesota resident and longtime paddler of the Boundary Waters region. An accomplished artist and one-time gardener for Sigurd Olson, McCann says Matichuk was an ambassador for Quetico and the paddling community.
“She represents the legacy of managers and rangers of the park,” he said. “And she represents the values shared by the people of Ontario. It’s her work ethic. When you think of Janice it’s her knowledge of the land, the weather there, and her island.”
In the eyes of many, the island where the ranger station is situated in Cache Bay is indeed ‘Janice’s island.’ I spent several days with Matichuk on the island in September 2018 as she prepared to close down the ranger at the end of another season in Quetico. Along with my friend and fellow Boundary Waters enthusiast, Matthew Baxley, we listened to Matichuk as she shared stories of working for more than 30 years as an interior ranger in Quetico. We ate thick-cut New York strip steaks cooked medium-rare, sipped dark roast coffee and talked long into the night. Inside the cabin it smelled of pine and fresh woodsmoke as Matichuk would occasionally toss another log on the fire while the temperature settled into the low 40s outside.
Matichuk spoke of history, her own and that of the island, in a way that had Baxley and I sitting wide-eyed like children listening to tales of adventure from the Canadian wilderness. It was as though her stories came from another world, though we sat in the immediate surroundings where many of the stories of which she spoke took place. Not knowing, or at least not fully appreciating that, at the time, we were sharing her space in one of her final years on the island, most of our questions focused on her early years in Quetico.
Matichuk was 30 years old when she first arrived at Cache Bay. It was May 1985. For decades to come the island was both her office and seasonal home. It was also where she raised two children. It’s where she has met canoe enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers from across the planet. It’s where Janice Matichuk became … Janice Matichuk.
“I remember walking from the plane up to the cabin … I remember it so well, because I just knew this is where I belong,” Matichuk told us. “I had such a settling in my bones. Yep, this is where I belong. I just knew it.”
Following that September night at the ranger station in Cache Bay, I felt Matichuk’s story needed to be shared with a wider audience. She could only meet so many people in a given year at the remote outpost, and short features in a newspaper, magazine or on the radio would not suffice. There was so much to share about Matichuk, not just in her time at the ranger station, but throughout the course of her unique life in northwestern Ontario.
Following Matichuk’s belief that tasks only get completed when somebody gets off their rear end and takes action, I started my research. For the next two years I dug deep, learning about the course of her life, conducting interviews and weaving together six decades to write the story of Janice Matichuk.
It’s a story that begins and ends at Cache Bay.
If the door opens to the Cache Bay Ranger Station for the 2021 paddling season, many will notice the numerous honors and awards hanging on the wall of park facility, including some of the most prestigious the Canadian government can issue to civilians or park employees. There are awards for bravery and achievement of varying degrees, though the name on each is the same: Janice Matichuk. When the door opens to the ranger station, the face behind the desk will be someone new.
Matichuk will not physically be there next season, but this will forever be her island.
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