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Cutting the Cord in Quetico

I am not entirely sure what is says about me that it takes me almost two years to get to certain photos and writing about a trip, but here we are almost exactly two years later. I am sure that COVID and its impacts on my ability to get out and travel have a lot to do with it, but this trip was one that I will remember for a long time regardless.

A very damp Base Camp on the north end of Sturgeon Lake

Quetico Provincial Park is just north of the Minnesota border and is an absolutely amazing place. Fairly accessible, but somehow simultaneously remote and away from anything resembling civilization, it captures your imagination with the sheer vastness of it from the moment you arrive.

After a long and dusty ride down an old logging trail, we managed to get our gear into the water and get on our way to the

Ranger Station a few miles away. After checking in. we settled in for what would be 22 miles of paddling up Beaverhouse Lake on the first day before we arrived at our stop for the evening on Lake Jean. The day was exhausting, much as the next couple would be trying to get back into the more remote part of the park, but on this evening, the rain had the common decency to wait until we had set camp and settled in for the night before it started coming down. The bad news was once it did, it stuck with us for the next several days as we continued to travel towards the east.

North shoreline off camp after the storms finally subsided. Once the weather moved on, conditions were near perfect the rest of the trip.

We continued our push over the next couple of days until we finally reached the northern end of Sturgeon Lake, soaked, worn out, and at least for me, grumpy and tired of being tired and wet (this would have mostly to do with me cutting corners on a decent rain suit). Things would get better from there. The fishing was world class, the weather went from intolerable to almost perfect, and the night skies were something you had to see to believe. I had almost forgotten how awe inspiring the stars could be in the backcountry, 100 miles away from anything that might qualify as light pollution. This was about the time I figured out I could take pictures of the stars and spent a number of nights trying to teach myself the basics using the limited knowledge I had of long exposure photography. Knowing what I know now, I cringe looking at the photos from a technical perspective, but deeply enjoy the memories that they bring back being with people I loved doing something I am passionate about.

North Sturgeon Lake - ISO 2500, 14mm, f/2.8, 20sec

I have on a number of occasions made an effort to disconnect myself digitally, to varying degrees of success. Whether it is just staying off my phone for a day, making sure I go a whole weekend without checking my work email I make an honest effort to get away from technology here and there. The best way to do this with a purpose however is to go somewhere 50 miles from the closest electrical outlet.

It surprised me to some extent (I am not sure why) just how much anxiety comes with being truly disconnected. We had a sat phone for emergencies, but even with that, help is still hours away at the very best in the event something were to go wrong.

The first couple of days without a phone or device to check were odd in many ways. I couldn't just grab my phone and mess with it when I got bored, I had to be present in the moment and either read the one book I had with me, or actually interact socially with the folks in our small group (My Dad, brother, cousin, and brother's friend). I cannot begin to explain how difficult this was at the outset. Which in some ways genuinely bothered me.

Rough route of the trip (minus additional movement east off the map). Green dots are camps, red stars are the start and end points where the canoes hit the water and were finally strapped back onto the top of the tow boat.

The good news in all of this is that after the first couple of days we fell into a rhythm and everyone got along well. Several days after that my mind was calmer and less cluttered than it had been in years. Fishing, trekking, canoeing, tending camp, and reading a good book were all that I needed to be engaged by to feel a sense of purpose and contentment. When taking photos, I was for once in no rush to take them, edit them, and post them to social media. I could remain in the moment and actually focus on getting the photos to line up with the vision I had for them. There are lessons I learned on that trip when it comes to

Main Camp Sturgeon Lake - ISO 1600, 14mm, f/2.8, 15sec

composition and other photography fundamentals I may not have learned for quite some time otherwise. It was a great opportunity to reinforce good habits - whether that was sleeping normal hours, honing my camping skills, photography fundamentals, spending quality time with my Dad and Brother and really being present, or simply allowing my mind to be calm for once. All of those things were things that I wrote down in my notebook and have tried to take with me back out of the wilderness and into the rat race that is my daily life. Some things have stuck, others not so much, but I do believe I did bring some good things back with me that have been of great mental benefit.

20 3/4-Inch Smallmouth Bass on Sturgeon lake. Breeding female that we definitely threw back. A common misconception is how many fish you eat on a backcountry trip like this. In 10 days for our 6 man party - we had one fish dinner. The idea is to enjoy and conserve the environment and fish population for those coming behind you.

Sitting around a campfire and enjoying the company of others was something I had forgotten how much I loved. Debates on politics and the state of the world abounded, as did in depth conversations on the fishing itself and planning the next days move. I know that it seems somewhat cliche, and maybe a bit overdone in some social media circles, but being present in the moment is something that can truly bring a lot of peace if you are deliberate about it. While the fishing and wilderness were amazing, that is what I will take away from that trip over the long term.

After a good 10 days and an estimated 125 miles of moving all over the park, we began the trek out of Sturgeon Lake, down the Maligne River and towards Twin Falls, which would be our pick up point. After much to do in some spots on the river, we made it back out and got on the road back to Minneapolis and our flights home.

The one fish dinner of Walleye on an evening towards the end of the trip.
An unfortunate local that was caught unawares down by the canoes one morning.

The trip through Quetico was physically exhausting. It was also mentally rejuvenating at the same time. The chance to spend time in that kind of wilderness I see as a privilege and consider myself very lucky to have that kind of opportunity. What makes it even better is going with people close to you that share your love of nature and conservation. If you are ever looking for a chance to cut the cord and slow down a bit, I can't think of a better place to do that than Quetico Provincial Park. Just remember to bring a good attitude, a good book, and for crying out loud a good rainsuit.

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