Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: Pickerel Lake, Quetico Provincial Park

Location: 2 hrs West of Thunder Bay
Website: Friends or Ontario Park
Map: Google
Camping Facilities: Backcountry (Wilderness)
Grade: A+
Stargazing: Didn't have the good fortune, but probably pretty good
Summary: Wish I had more time...
Thoughts: I remember the first time I heard about Quetico, back in 2001, calling up the Ontario Parks reservation line and being told that "a $100 deposit was necessary for any bookings" in the park. I remember thinking "Where? Why?". It seemed odd that this random park needed an arbitrary deposit fee, but there must have been a good reason. That reason is still a mystery, mainly because I've never bothered to ask anyone up until this point. But I did look up the park to see what all the fuss was about and it is an enchanting concept: imagine a park that's about half the size of Algonquin park, where logging activities are strictly forbidden (i.e., no false vistas for the paddling thoroughfares like those found in Algonquin), where motorboats are not welcome, where the current natural state is preserved in perpetuity, where there are no grandfathered resorts in the interior, where the campsites are unmarked, where the portages are unsigned, and where you can cross the Canadian-American border by canoe. It all sounds like what a backcountry park should be. But this is one of the few in the park system where all this is true.

The call of a calm bay is hard to resist on Pickerel...
I had myself one night to check out Quetico. One night - 400,000ha. Needless to say, you can't even scratch the surface. And it had to be somewhere that wouldn't crush us in our attempt to access the park in the midst of a fierce late-summer storm. Plus it had to be a reasonable drive from Thunder Bay. It's limiting, to be sure, and our first pick (Baptism Creek - a fitting name for one's first foray into the park) was not taking any new campers that night. So we took the next best thing in Pickerel Lake. It's a 30-minute drive off the Trans-Canada, down a pretty sketchy road, till you're finally at the Pickerel Lake parking lot. Then you have to do a long 500m portage. I say "long" because it's one of those ones that feels a lot longer than what's marked for some reason. It's narrow and rocky, plus I found some folks on the trail less than respectful of portage etiquette (the person with the canoe on their head has right of way people). It's also pretty mucky, but staff do their best to keep your boots clean with some boardwalks. Note: there is no park office on this road, so you'll have to check in at the park pavilion / car campground. It's probably worthwhile stopping for in itself, one of the nicer park gatehouses I've seen. Nice facilities too.
A panorama of Pickerel
Pickerel Lake is a monstrous, wind-whipping East-West lake. All the canoeists we met on the lake were raring to go and we all smelt a whiff of competition in the air as the sites are first-come first-served. More so than in the Algonquin or Killarney spirit, because there's no guarantee a good, clear campsite will be waiting for you (at least in those other parks, you book a spot on Big Crow Lake, you know you have a spot on Big Crow Lake). There a quota systems in place which limit the number of people in the backcountry, so there's probably no reason to worry that you won't find anything good; plus seeing as you can technically camp anywhere, well, all  you need to find is an open flat-ish piece of ground.

We set off into strong gusts that nearly swamped us in the first 15 minutes and slowed our progress to a crawl as we tried to make our way east into the Lake. Our fellow canoeists were off to the races, everybody seemed to know what they were doing and where they were headed. We fell to the back of the pack and quickly realised that if we wanted to enjoy what there was to enjoy of the day, we had to take the first campsite that we could get. After two false stops (they looked like sites from the water, but on shore they were not worth unloading for), we found a keeper. And it was a pretty nice one to be sure, but that's the trick of unmarked campsites - you never know where the next one is and if it might be a bit better.

Nothing beats knowing you have
a good stack of firewood
Our site was full of dead fall, even though it was on a narrow point with sparse tree cover. The bugs were kept at bay and we were able to enjoy a roaring fire going for 6 hours while we polished off a bottle's worth of bourbon (no bottles or cans allowed!). There are no picnic benches, no privies, no firepits with accompanying grills. It's all as basic as camping gets. Sometimes it left me wanting, but the benefits outweigh any of the strikes against. Oh, and contrary to what my ignorant Southern Ontario brain guessed, yes, you do get leeches in lakes up north. So watch where you're swimming, a number were trying to make a meal out of my canoe (nice try, jerks).

Quetico Provincial Park
Endless wilderness...
I can't recommend a trip up to Quetico enough. It's the true canoeists mecca in Ontario, maybe Canada. The setting is magical, mainly because you know that it just goes on forever and that it's as pristine a spot as you'll find this far south in the province. The promise of all the countless wilderness lakes, pictographs, old growth forest, giant white pines, waterfalls and human history that reach far beyond the big lake's treeline, it's enough to blow one's mind. Support our great Northern Ontario parks and don't worry about the $100 deposit.

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