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.
Quetico and the Boundary Waters are part of a single ecosystem, with similar biology, climate, geology, and habitat. However, traveling to the Quetico different than traveling in the BWCAW. For one, far less people canoe Quetico, giving it a more rugged, wilder feel. Second, there are no designated campsites, no fire grates, no latrines. This is unsurpassed canoe country, with a lifetime of bays, lakes, rivers and trails to explore and fall in love with.
In many ways, a trip to the Quetico is more challenging than the Boundary Waters. The lakes are bigger, it’s more isolated, help is further away.
But perhaps the biggest challenge is getting there. You are traveling to a foreign country (assuming you’re coming from the United States), and there are a few more hoops to jump through.
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 a 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 Passport, those canoeing in from the southern border will need a CANPASS Remote Area Border Crossing Permit (RABC) from Canadian Border Services Agency in Thunder Bay.
It’s easy to get an RABC: check out the website with printable forms. Follow directions and be sure to mail in your application four weeks before your trip. The permit costs $30 Canadian per family ($22 USD) and 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 be done online on the Ontario Parks website or by phone (1-888-668-7275), up to five months in advance of your arrival date.
There is a $100 deposit (about $75 USD) plus a $12 reservation fee (about $9 USD) charged to your credit card at that time. The camping fee ranges from approximately $15 to $22 Canadian 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:
- Atikokan Headquarters
- Dawson Trail at French Lake
- Lac La Croix
- Prairie Portage on Basswood
- Cache Bay on Saganaga
Fishing in Quetico
By now, you’re probably thinking, wow Canada sure likes to double up on things: Two official forms to cross the border (Passport and Remote Area Border Crossing Permit) two entry points (the Ranger Station and the entry point).
Well…if you want to fish in Ontario you need two documents as well!
At least our neighbors are consistent!
To fish in Quetico, you of course need a fishing license. But before you get a license you need the Ontario Outdoors Card.
An Outdoors card is a three-year plastic ID card to hunt or fish in Ontario (it costs about $10). Both of these must be purchased online, before you leave, at Fish and Wildlife Licensing Service.
Be sure to read the fishing regulations as they are distinctly different from BWCA fishing regulations in Minnesota.
The big difference is that 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.
Canoeing in Quetico
So where should you go in this canoeing wonderland?
One of the true joys of the Quetico-Superior ecosystem is that there is enough lakes and portage trails to make up a route as you go. However, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
We’re working on guide to canoe routes in Quetico, and hope to have it ready by next year!
In the meantime, check out Robert Beymer’s book A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico Provincial Park, which is loaded with entry points and route suggestions that bring you to all corners of the park. Another great resource Kevin Callan’s A Paddler’s Guide to Quetico and Beyond.
Quetico Packing List
A journey into Quetico is different than a trip into the BWCA, and requires different equipment?
So what else do you need for a trip to the Quetico?
To save space, let’s assume assume you have the basics of what you need for a trip to the Boundary Waters: 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 PFDs for each person, lightweight paddles, packs for food, equipment, personal gear and decent outdoor clothing that dries quickly.
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 cover it up as well. Quetico instructs you to burn your toilet paper. Because of this, 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.
- Emergency communication device. In case something bad happens, you need some way to “radio” for help or even evacuate. Smartphones might work for photos, but there is no reliable cell service in the Quetico. You need a satellite communications device like SPOT or Garmin InReach. Read more about these units here.
- 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 four or more people you should at least have a 12×12 foot tarp, like Cooke Custom Sewing Tundra Tarp. 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.
- 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 There are 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 should bring one or two water bottles for personal use.
- Camp chairs. 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. Nomad and Goal Zero make great solar chargers, 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.
- Saw and Hatchet. You do not need an axe, and while you’ll hardly ever use a hatchet, bring it for the rainy days when you need to split wood and find that dry kindling in the middle of a log. Otherwise, one or two saws are all you need. Crews have been caught in windstorms and have had to saw their way out!
- Dry Bags. A SealLine 20-liter dry bag is ideal for clothes. Two fit nicely side by side in a personal pack. 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.
- Fisher 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.
Many consider a week paddling in Quetico to be a “Trip of a Lifetime,” but if you do go there and you do spend a week in the park, you’ll probably resolve to make many more trips into this beautiful wilderness during your lifetime.
Remember the Boy Scout and Girl Scout motto: Be prepared! Enjoy your adventure to the Quetico!
Thanks to Kim Young for writing 90% of this! Kim has been canoeing in the BWCAW and Quetico since 1977 and has an mind-boggling store of knowledge about both areas. Kim is a former board member of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and regular contributor to Boundary Waters Journal Magazine.
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