Tackling The Cache Lake Portages in Quetico Provincial Park.

Have you ever thought about a canoe trip to tackle the Cache Lake portages up in Quetico Provincial Park? ManCamping decided to take them on as this year’s challenge. Two back-to-back portages of more than 3km each. Let me paint a picture for you.

Finishing the Cache Lake Portages

Someone has pissed off the giant flaming orb in the sky. It’s 35° C outside without a cloud in the sky and I’m pretty sure that the rainforest has less humidity than Quetico Provincial Park does at this moment. It’s day two of our week long canoe trip and we are tackling the Cache Lake portages today.  Landing the canoe at the foot of the Portage we grab our packs and get to portaging. Instantly, the black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies and hell with wings flies find us and start to chow down. Deep Woods Off, Picaratin and even 98% deet have zero effect. Knee deep, boot sucking mud is what makes up the better parts of the trail. The occasional half sunken, tippy moving log thrown down by a Portage crew somewhere in the mid 1800’s is the only salvation every 100m. Ten minutes carrying the packs along the trail them doubling back for the boat. John falls in, pack on his back, up to his ass in bogg. “WHY THE HELL DID WE DECIDE TO DO THIS?” John blurted out between fits of laughter, I responded “Why do people run marathons? You’re part of the 1% of people stupid enough to step outside their comfort zone and push themselves to the limit!”. I yanked Johnny out of the swamped and we pushed on.

Still want to try the Cache Lake portages? I figure if you’re reading this on ManCamping.ca – You are still up for it. Part of ManCamping is never backing down.

It has been a few years since Johnny and I did a big trip like this. Getting together over a smoker full of pork belly and ribs, we had two route options we chatted about. One was the Cache Lake Portages route, which was described online as “I wished for death”, Why the hell does this portage even exist?” And “WTF!!?!?!”. The other route was a leisurely paddle that would take us into the United States and the Boundry Waters Park and back again. As John explained both options I sat silently, smirking and laughing not giving a response. It only took about 20 minutes of John trying is level best to convince me the leisure route would be fun before giving up, laughing and exclaiming ” For fuck sakes, we’re doing the Cache Lake Portages aren’t we…” Lol. We both laughed and knew that the challenge of Cache Lake was on.

Fast forward two weeks and John is picking me up and we are on our drive up to Quetico. 18 hours of two guys driving a Subaru hatchback with a Nova Craft canoe on top, singing friendly insults at each other and catching up with each other’s lives. We got to the Dawson Trail Campground roughly 2:30am. Slept in the car at a campsite the Rangers let us take the night before.

8am: We have our permits and have gone through the Rangers first time Quetico paddlers introduction (including a “How to poop in the woods lesson! 😂”) The Rangers also let us know that the Portage crew has just been through along our route! Wonderful news!

ManCamping Quetico canoeing adventure
ok it’s been 15 minutes… where the hell are we?

Just before we launch we strike up a conversation with two gents who claim to have been guides in the park. They claim to have solo paddled 20km and done the two Cache Lake Portages all in one day. It gave us hope – But I’ll tell you now, THAT GUY IS A LIAR! LIES I TELL YOU!

We shove off, full of piss and vinegar, our usual Modus Operandi. We take to the Baptism Creek off of French’s lake and our trip had begun. 30 minutes or so into the trip, a quick discussion with a pair of girls in a canoe leads us to the realization that we are lost and heading the wrong way. Lol Don’t worry this is typical for us and how we start all trips. After about an hour, and getting lost at least one more time, we actually find Baptism Creek. Now for 18km of paddling against the current in a hair-pin turn filled Creek. Don’t let my description so far lead to believe this isn’t fun. We’re in our element and having the time of our lives! We end the day on Trousers Lake. The Cache Lake Portage is in sight, sort of. Nothing is marked in Quetico Provincial Park. Not the Portages, nor the campsites. We know it’s at the edge of the lake there somewhere, waiting to be found tomorrow.

Baptism Creek

We set out the next morning knowing exactly what lies ahead. The whole reason for this trip. The first of the Cache Lake Portages. 3200m of some rough ass terrain and there is nothing left to do but do it!

John came up with a good plan of attack. We’ll trudge through with our packs, walking for 10 minutes. Drop the packs and walk back for the boat. Catch back up to our gear and repeat. The leap-frog method. Solid plan. Let’s do it. The method worked well… However the terrain did not want us there and like an angry Poltergeist, it did it’s damnedest to let us know that.

Cache Lake Portages
A view of part of the Cache lake portages

Four hours of solid, non-stop effort is what it took to get through. We had a good hearty breakfast, snacked along the way, went through about 8 litres of water and it was still a test of endurance and grit to finish this beast. Half way through what you think is just a giant swamp, you will come to the actual swamp. What in the cinnamon toast crunch shit is this!?! Loading the boat with our gear and pushing across a 20 foot river just get back out and trudge on. At one point, you come to a clearing that gives you a little hope it might be the end, bit it’s just a barren, big-foot territory-esc obstacle that Dash’s those hope pretty quickly. Travel across it and hopefully, you’ll find the other side and another 1500m or so to go.

No backing down now. Keep pushing. Keep your head up, punch your buddy in the arm to keep his spirits up, keep moving. Push through all of this with the bugs eating a good portion of skin, the sun beating down on you and more effort than it takes to climb mountains and you’ll eventually see the sweet rejuvenating sight of blue. Water! The end of the Portage and a clear view of Cache lake! Boom! The first of two hell Portages down! High fives, celebratory sips of scotch and a straight shot heading to a campsite to rest up for the night.

Our efforts are rewarded with a campsite so small we can barely wedge the canoe in between our two tents and still have a spot for a fire. A quick swim and some food makes everything better. Score so far: ManCamping 1 – Cache Lake portages 0.

Cache Lake Portage #2
Cache Lake Portage #2

The next morning, everything hurts. Lol EVERY THING. Maybe we should have taken our own advice and did some exercises to train for this. But that’s not who we are. Time for round 2 with these Portages.

We find the Portage entrance and stick with the same plan as the day before. This portage is 3200m, out of which 6m is actual land. The rest is not and swamp like before, with the same bugs (seriously – I think I recognized specific ones from the day before.) More logs have been placed by a Portage crew, but not recently and it’s a coin toss as to which ones won’t break your ankles when they tip, sink or fly out from beneath your feet. This portage has the added fun of a waist deep marsh in the middle! Woot woot!

At this point, John has fallen into the swamp up to his ass, has admittedly wished for death and we are both sporting and equal amount of weight in our packs as we are mud and God knows what else in our boots and pants. Lol. The pair of us have found that yelling out “Fuck Cache Lake!!” Gives quite a renewed sense of energy from time to time. Now this is what tripping is all about! The rest of this canoe trip will be a cake walk compared to this! (We still have about 120km to paddle after this!)

John and I make up a world class team in my opinion. We’ve been friends for years, won’t back down and always push each other. When one is down the other is up and vice versa, pushing the other to keep going when there is nothing left in the tank. Most importantly, we both have an unwavering inability to “camp at the Portage”. Which is our way of saying …. Forget it, let’s just camp here. We finish what we start.

On our sixth leap frog, the executive decision was made that we had to be close and just to push through to the end. Out of water and out of energy… The mudslide entrance to Lindsay lake appears. The words “Lake Ho!” are called out. Time to filter some water and celebrate! Cache lake Portages have been defeated! A quick rest and off to find a campsite. It’s now Canada Day and with the final knock out of the Cache Lake portages, it’s time to celebrate. Maple Chipotle Korean short ribs over the fire and an abundance of fine scotch on a great little island site.

Campfire cooking in Quetico Provincial Park
cooking over the fire
Did you know Gollum exists in Quetico?

Paddling Mackenzie, searching for non-existent petroglyphs, farting over a small lift over and getting into Kawnipi lake was our next day. Kawnipi Lake, apparently being a great fishing lake had us running into other paddlers for the first time. That’s a little foreign to us, as we’re accustom to not seeing anyone on our trips! But we took pride in knowing they took the easy way in and didn’t come through Cache lake like we had. Maybe they were smarter but we have all the grit. Stopping for lunch the campsites have now become the Shangri-la of sites. Huge sites with log benches, rock cooking tables and beautiful fire pits! The Portages are opening up into, well, dry land! Who would have thought! Lunch is done and we shove off to get further along before night fall…. And bam. Head wind. A tuck behind an island wait it out type of wind. ManCamping has only ever experienced a tail wind once since it’s existence lol. Finally making it half way down Kawnipi around 7pm.

Day # “Who knows… We’ve lost count”: A light breeze for a 30km day of paddling. Today is an easier day filled with laughs and stupid topics of conversation that make the day pass, while paddling in and out of the biggest islands and rock faces we’ve seen yet. The occasional silence is broken by one of still screaming out “Fuck Cache Lake!” Which echos along the lake.

We pushed through Kawnipi into the Maligned river, Shelly lake, doing the famous “Have a smoke” Portage!

Keats lake, Chatterton lake and half way to Russell Lake before calling it a day and grabbing a campsite. Strapping on our PFD’s as diapers it was time to go for a float. If you haven’t tried this… You need too!

For for the first time on this canoe trip, there are clouds! Off in the distance, there is a storm. Lighto and a bit of thunder can be seen but it is avoiding us like the plague. Fairly certain it’s due to the way we smell by this point in the trip. Stinking in the woods is a right of passage and we have definitely lived up to that. Lol. Maybe it’s time to do some laundry.

Waking up the next day to the sweet sound of rain on the tent fly. Nope. Back to sleep. It only lasted about 5 minutes but that sound instantly puts me to sleep. It’s too relaxing. That was the first and last bit of rain on this trip.

Today we will get to our last campsite. We push on to Russell Lake, Sturgeon Lake, Oliphant lake, Fern lake and Bud lake. Finding our best campsite of the trip on Bud lake. A huge island site with plenty of flat tent pads, a sweet sloping rock face up from the water and an awesome surprise. Some glorious human being has left us a pile of cut fire wood and kindling. After a long days paddle with multiple Portages and sweltering heat, there is no better sight than a pile of firewood you don’t need to work for. Thank you paddling gods!

We sat around the fire and made sure that, being as this was our last night, we should probably stay up to see the stars at least once on this trip. The sun doesn’t go down until 11pm, ambient light sticking around well past that. Mix that with long days of paddling and we were tired enough to be in bed before the stars stared to shine. The fire died out, we finished the last of the whiskey and the beef jerky ran out. That means only one thing. It’s time to go home.

ManCamping in Quetico

The next morning we shove off knowing we still have lots of water to cover to get back to the Dawson Trail Campground. Bud lake to Beg lake, Beg to Bisk lake (ok who was the alliteration fan who named these lakes??).  From Bisk lake, the map showed a Portage around a series of rapids. However, we came across a small set of fast flowing rapids not marked on the map and we’ll before the Portage. A quick discussion was had after a search for a lift over or Portage revealed nothing. “I guess we go up the rapids!”. “Makes sense to me!”.

Johnny’s picked a line up the rapids and we took a run at them. “Stay to the far left” he told me. We got up to top speed, stayed to the left as planned and were doing just fine. Until. We drove our canoe into the rockopotamus not visible from our vantage point. Now on every ManCamping trip there is a near death experience – This was it. With a very loud bang and scrape, Johnny and the front of the canoe were now airborne. We were almost verticle. The current pushed us sideways and landed us sideways into the rapids and we are now taking on water from the portside captain!!!! A quick shift of our weight at the same time righted the canoe and we went back down the rapids.

If 120° Airborne High-siding a canoe in rapids was an Olympic sport, we would have garnered at least a 9! We even stuck the landing for Christ sakes!

We got our Nova Craft to shore, dumped the water out and laughed at the incident while the adrenaline calmed down. “What in the hell made us think that going UP the rapids was a good idea!” Hahahahaha

We push on and find the actual portage that takes us into Pickerel Lake. 1.5km up a steep trail with a cliff face beside us that leads to certain rapidy death of we lose footing. Quetico isn’t letting us go without another battle here folks. We finish the Portage and get into another lovely headwind on Pickerel Lake. The biggest of all the lakes on this trip.

The headwind turns to a massively annoying broadside/tail wind that takes more energy to steer in than the bloody Cache Lake Portages. Fuck Cache lake! (Excuse the language, but it is warranted. It’s now a battle cry!)

14km of this battle was fought before we pulled off to try and wait out the wind. Which doesn’t work. We push on and eventually as we start to see The Pines (a white sandy beach amongst a first of pines close to our destination/starting point) the wind dies down, only to become a headwind again.

At this point all energy has been used up, muscle fatigue is kicking in and Quetico is snickering at us. Grit levels are comeback into play. We grind out the remaining few km and get back to the campground. The last bits of energy are used on high fives as we finished the trip and didn’t die!

We spent the night in Thunder Bay having greasy pizza and beers and tearing up the town before the long drive back the GTA the next morning.

Quetico is an amazing park that every canoeist should paddle at least once and I hope we make it back to see more of the park one day. With a clear sense of accomplishment, a lot of shenanigans and a domination of the Cache Lake portages, this trip won’t soon be forgotten

Follow along on Instagram for more photos!

We were on the Paddling Adventures Radio podcast talking about this trip. Click here to listen

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