All You Need to Know to Paddle the Quetico
By Kim Young
What makes traveling to the Quetico different than setting off into the BWCAW? Well, quite a few things besides the fact you are traveling to a foreign country.
Stretching 60 miles from east to west and 40 miles from north to south, with hundreds of lakes and rivers linked by 550 maintained portages, Quetico’s rugged beauty is billed as the best canoeing in the world.
There’s dozens of good reasons to paddle here.
Quetico Planning – Passport and Remote Area Border Crossing Permit
To start, you’re going to have to do a bit of paperwork and get some documents in order.
To enter Canada, you will need your passport. This goes for those crossing the border by car to access to the three northern ranger stations, or those paddling into the park from Minnesota (via the southern border).
In addition to your passports, those canoeing in through the southern border will need a CANPASS Remote Area Border Crossing Permit from Canadian Border Services Agency in Thunder Bay. It’s easy to get an RABC: check out the website with printable forms (cbsa-asfc.gc.ca). Follow directions and it is highly recommended to mail it in 3-4 weeks before your trip. It is $30 CAD per family ($22 USD). It is good for one year.
Permits for Quetico Entry Points
Like the Boundary Waters, you must enter Quetico through a designated entry point. There are 21 points to choose from.
Reserving a permit can now be done online on the Ontario Parks website (ontarioparks.com) or by phone five months in advance of your arrival date. There is a $100 deposit (about $75 USD) plus a $12 reservation fee ($9 USD) charged to your credit card at that time. The camping fee ranges from approximately $15 to $22 CAD for a non-resident adult per day, which you pay at the ranger station.
Once you have chosen your entry point, you must plan to pick up your permit from one of the six ranger stations located through the park. They are:
Dawson Trail at French Lake
Lac La Croix
Prairie Portage on Basswood
Cache Bay on Saganaga
Fishing in Quetico
You’re not done yet with fees if you want to go fishing while in the Quetico. There’s the license fee and the Ontario Outdoors Card that you will need in order to cast your line. An Outdoors card is a three-year plastic ID card to hunt or fish in Ontario ($9.38 CAD or $7 USD). Both of these can be purchased online at Fish and Wildlife Licensing Service prior to your departure.
Be sure to read the fishing regulations as they are distinctly different from Minnesota’s!
For instance: You are required you to fish with barbless hooks. Also, live and formerly live bait are prohibited to prevent invasive species from coming into these pristine waters.
That about covers the paperwork.
Now for the fun stuff.
I started canoe camping in Quetico Provincial Park in 1977. Needless to say, the scenery isn’t dramatically different than the Boundary Waters, but the experience is much different.
Even during the peak season, it’s more than possible that you’ll go days without seeing anyone.
So where should you go in this canoeing wonderland?
I started to get to know the Quetico by using Robert Beymer’s book A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico Provincial Park. I used his entry point and route suggestions to explore all corners of the park. After several years, I developed my own plans to discover lakes, pictographs and historical sites. Another great resource Kevin Callan’s A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico and Beyond.
Of course, you can also spend a few hours scrutinizing online route planning forums too. Just Google “Quetico Routes.”
Quetico Packing List
What’s essential for the Quetico? To save space, I’m going to assume you all have a high-quality tent that won’t blow over in a windstorm, sleeping bags rated to the appropriate temperature, suitable canoes, appropriate and properly sized PFD’s per person, lightweight paddles, packs for food, equipment, personal gear and decent outdoor clothing that dry quickly.
So, along with those essentials, here — in no particular order — are the invaluable things you need for your Quetico experience:
Cat hole trowel. Unlike the BWCA, there are no luxurious wilderness latrines in the Quetico. You’ll have to dig that toilet. Dig a hole that’s 4-6 inches deep and then cover it up as well. Quetico instructs you to burn your toilet paper. Campsites are A LOT CLEANER than they used to be! To avoid digging holes all around the campsite, your crew should make a designated group site at each camp.
Fire Grate. There are no fire grates at campsites. Bring a fire grate in a heavy-duty bag (or an old pillow case) because it will be blackened after the first use. Before you make a fire in the fire pit, redesign the rocks so your grate will fit if you intend to use it for cooking that night.
Sleeping pads or cots. A good night’s sleep is vital. Either Therm-a-Rest, Big Agnes sleeping pads or Helinox cots. Use whatever you need to keep your body off the hard ground.
Tarp. If it rains for multiple days on end, having the right tarp can make or break a trip. For 4 or more people you should at least have a 12x12 foot tarp. I have a variety of sized tarps but my red colored 10x16 foot Cooke Custom Sewing Tundra Tarp has been a staple for many years now. Additional tarps can be used for side walls if you have driving rain, or as a wind break so you may cook.
First Aid Kit. Whether you have a pre-assembled kit or assemble your own, accidents do happen. If it’s a fish hook injury or a deep cut, have the correct supplies to deal with these events. I carried around a “Sam Splint” for 20 years and first used it two years ago when a friend broke her wrist the first night of our trip.
Proper rainwear. Nothing is worse than being wet and cold. Both jackets and pants are necessary to keep dry in a lingering rain shower, whether you’re paddling or hanging around camp. Don’t skimp on raingear, there are numerous products out there in a wide range of prices.
Headlamp. There are many brands (Petzl and Black Diamond are popular) but bringing one is imperative. Whether you need it for a late-night walk in the woods or tracking down strange noises, have it handy BEFORE it gets dark. Always bring along extra batteries.
Water purification system I use a variety of products: Katadyn Hiker Pro, Katadyn Gravity Camp 6 L, and a SteriPen. The SteriPen and Hiker Pro are great on the trail and the Base Camp speaks for itself. Everyone in my crew brings one or two water bottles for personal use.
Camp chairs. No longer a luxury item any more, camp chairs can range from the Crazy Creek style to the lightweight portable Helinox type. There are so many varieties out there, you just have to simply test some out at a store to decide which works for you.
Solar or portable charger. These days, many people bring their smart phones with them to take photos of their trip, myself included! I have both kinds of chargers in my stash: I’ve had my Nomad Goal Zero around for a while, but when the sun doesn’t shine you’re out of luck. In these cases, the Anker PowerCore 10000 comes in handy. It is one of the smallest and lightest External Battery High-Speed-Charging -Technology Power Banks around.
Two small stoves. Why take two? Stuff happens and two is a must for a larger group. I personally own two Snow Peak GigaPower Stoves which use isobutane canisters for fuel. The new Snow Peak GigaPower 2.0 was recently named one of the best backpacking stoves of 2019. Butane does not perform well below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is fine by me — I only canoe camp when its warm!
Saw and Hatchet. You do not need an axe, and I hardly ever bring a hatchet. However, on rainy trips, it’s nice to split wood and find that good-looking dry kindling in the middle of a log. Otherwise, one or two saws are all you need. Once a saw broke on us. Another time a storm came through the area (a possible derecho on July 22, 2014) and with two handsaws, we literally sawed our way through almost every portage to get back to Dawson Trail (from Sturgeon Lake).
Dry Bags. Everyone I go with on a trip uses a SealLine 20-liter dry bag for their clothes. Two fit nicely side by side in a personal pack. I wouldn’t go without it. If you don’t have enough room in your tent for your gear, it can be set outside in the vestibule without the worry of anything getting wet.
Fischer or McKenzie Maps and a Compass. Do you need a GPS? No way. Use your maps, topography, and a compass to hone your navigation skills. It’s not hard. You have to pay attention to the land forms, islands, rivers, creeks, cliffs, size of the body of water etc. This is an infinitely more rewarding way to travel. You’ll find your way and if you get lost, don’t panic, just back track.
In closing, you may have noticed I mentioned using an iPhone for pictures. I didn’t mention using it for communication. There is no reliable cell service in the Quetico, but that is likely to change in the future. I did use iPhone two years ago to text someone about a broken wrist so they could meet us at the hospital in Ely the next day. In an emergency, IF there is coverage, I think it’s a good idea.
In my opinion, you should not rely on an iPhone to connect with the outside world. Some people feel safer with a satellite phone or a SPOT locater. If that makes you and your family feel safe, go ahead and take it.
Remember the Boy Scout and Girl Scout motto: Be prepared! Enjoy your adventure to the Quetico!
Kim is a retired Dental Hygienist. She is on the Board of FOTBW and writes for the Boundary Waters Journal Magazine. She has been canoeing in the BWCAW and Quetico since 1977.