Photograph by Jim Brandenburg, Corbis
It's easy to picture what the Ojibwa saw in the 1400s when they first traveled in birchbark canoes to what is now Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. Little here has changed since then and, as part of the largest international area in the world set aside for wilderness recreation (Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness shares its border), not much is expected to change for generations to come. Here in Canada's canoeing capital, time is measured in the rhythms of the pristine boreal forest. With no cell towers, motorized boats, vehicles, hunting, restaurants, or lodges, it's just you, your kayak or canoe, and whatever you're able to carry in and out. Paddle the vast network of water routes in complete isolation, camp at a primitive site, hike the wilderness trails, and sit motionless on the shore to experience the calming, restorative effects of total, natural silence.
When to Go: June and July are best for fishing, but high season for mosquitoes and black flies. July and August are the warmest, most popular months. "Visitor numbers are regulated, so you can arrive during peak season and still have a wonderful wilderness experience," says Debbie Mark of Seagull Outfitters. The fall foliage is spectacular in September with minimal bugs but colder temperatures. Park services and outfitter shops close for the season in September, so self-guided travel isn't recommended in winter since emergency help and essential services aren't available.
How to Get Around: Dawson Trail, the most popular entry point, is located just off Highway 11 on French Lake, 30 miles east of the town of Atikokan. Outfitters run shuttle services from Thunder Bay's airport. There are also fly-in canoe options to designated areas. If you're not bringing your own canoe and camping gear, outfitters like Seagull, Canoe Canada Outfitters, Quetico North, and Quetiquest can provide all necessary equipment and help customize your route.
Where to Stay: Quetico Provincial Park has over 2,000 wilderness campsites scattered across some 600 lakes. Drive-in, full-service camping is only available at Dawson Trail, located in the northeast corner of the park on French Lake. Of the 107 campsites, 49 have electrical access and can accommodate RVs. Two yurts are also available to rent. Permits are required for each night's stay, with reservations highly recommended in July and August.
What to Eat or Drink: Walleye, pike, smallmouth bass, and lake trout are all on the fishing menu. On canoe trips, food must be packed in and out. Anglers should note that barbed hooks must be pinched, and no organic bait is allowed into the park. Cans and glass bottles are prohibited, except for essential nonfood items like fuel, insect repellant, and medication. Locals who grew up in the area drink from the lake but advise visitors to boil or filter their water first.
What to Bring: Besides your park and fishing permits, make sure you have several options to light a fire (including waterproof matches), a sharp ax to chop wood, bags to triple pack your food, barbless hooks, and essential backcountry camping gear.
What to Read Before You Go: Boundary Waters, by William Kent Krueger (Pocket Star, 2000). The second in Krueger's 13-book Cork O'Connor mystery series is set in the Quetico wilderness and pays homage to the Ojibwa storytelling tradition.
Fun Fact: Twenty-eight aboriginal rock paintings known as pictographs have been identified in the park, including images of moose, canoes, turtles, and hunters. Considered sacred by many Lac La Croix First Nations members, most of the images are painted on flat cliff surfaces just above the water line, leading researchers to believe people created them while standing in canoes. The age of the pictographs is uncertain.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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