Alone and unplugged, a Dayton, Ohio riverman was on his first solo trip to the Canadian boundary waters known as The Quetico. A place where excellent fishing meets pristine beauty but also an area that is 'off the grid.' With no contact to the outside world for the week beginning Sept. 9th, 2001 he only learns about the tragic events in the U.S. upon his return days later. The following is a glimpse in his log book of the time.
There were only eighteen hours before my next excursion to the Quetico when my phone rang, it was my partner and he didn’t have good news. He told me he wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to make the trip. I told him to get some rest and I would call him in the morning to see if his condition had changed. Then I became sick, I literally felt sick to my stomach after hearing our trip was cancelled.
I began stewing over the notion of doing a solo outing to the Quetico. I had never been on a solo trip before and would have liked more time to mentally and physically prepare for such an undertaking. After about an hour’s time I made the decision no matter what I was still going.
I called him in the morning and his status hadn’t changed. He told me I should cancel the trip and not risk going it alone. I stated I was going with or without him. He could not comprehend my passion for the Quetico. So began my solo adventure to Ely with a thousand mile road trip.
Day 1 – September 9th
Once at Williams and Hall, I sorted through all of the gear and supplies and managed to pack it all into one backpack. Chuck, my tow boat driver, navigated us over to Prairie Portage while a cold mist slapped me in the face. I was the first one to arrive there to go through the ranger station, but I wasn’t the only person there. Quetico Park Superintendent Robin Reilly and her assistant Dave Maynard were there as well. They were on their final leg of a “Cross-Quetico” project which entailed bringing with them a hand-carved Don Meany paddle to be given to the mayor of Ely from the mayor of Atikokan. It was a goodwill\friendship gesture which was handed over to the U.S. Forest Service for delivery. Bob Cary from the Ely Echo were on hand to capture the presentation with photos and prose. There were also two more extra rangers in the station when I was invited in for processing. They were just heading out to Basswood’s North Bay to look at some areas being designated for a prescribed burn.
After picking up my permits I loaded the over-sized backpack into the front of the tandem canoe and headed north. The rain had now stopped and there wasn’t much wind, which made for an easy paddle across Bayley Bay. As I neared the first portage out of Bayley Bay an eagle flew across my bow to signal a greeting from the Quetico.
There was a sign posted at the portage explaining the camping restrictions in this area after September 17th due to the prescribed burn. I struggled to pick up my behemoth pack before the start of this easy eighty rod portage. When I reached the other side there was an older couple on there way out of the park. I picked up their remaining gear and carried it back across the portage for them. They were grateful for the kind gesture. I slung my canoe to my shoulders and headed back down the trail.
Paddling across the calm Burke Lake I started to feel the tensions of everyday life pour out of my skin. All I heard was the stroke of the paddle and water dripping back into the lake. I began to feel good about this whole solo thing I was embarking on. The rain started again when I reached the next portage. A simple up and over and then I was gliding down the stream towards North Bay. One more rocky and muddy portage before arriving at Basswood’s North Bay.
A nice island campsite was found and camp was erected. There was nothing left to do but to go fishing at this point. I wasn’t out there long before I started to see some voracious top-water hits. Smallmouth bass were chasing baitfish. I in turn chased the smallmouth. On the first cast with my bull frog colored Lucky 13 a seventeen incher slammed it off of the surface. I ended up catching five in the seventeen to nineteen inch range and a fat one over twenty inches; it had to be close to five pounds. The gulls told me where the smallmouth were feeding as they would dive down to the surface when bait fish were being chased to the top. I would paddle over towards where the gulls landed and fling my lure in their direction; most of the time I didn’t even need to move it before it enticed a strike.
As I paddled around the island fishing I spotted two moose not more than two-hundred feet from my campsite. There was a cow and her calf eating twigs. I took some pictures and just bobbed on the lake watching them for awhile. Once back at camp I met my new companion, his name was Rocky. I named him after Rocky the squirrel from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. He would chatter at me and I would talk to him, neither of us knew each other’s communications but we understood each other.
My back was starting to hurt from that over- sized pack I was hauling around earlier, so I decided it was time to relax and get a fire going. It was in the 50s and windy as I watched the sunset on another beautiful Quetico day. My final journal entry read the following “The stars tonight are as clear as I’ve ever seen before. The Milky Waysplashed across the darken skies. Stars fell threw the Big Dipper as if it were catching tear drops from the heavens”.
Day 2 – September 10th
I woke up to the sound of rain and wind hitting the tarp over the tent. No big deal, my back was still sore from yesterday and could use the extra rest. I made a mental note to separate my gear and food into different packs for the next solo trip. It was too windy to fish the west side of the island today so I made my way east to try some protective coves. I soon became aware it was windy over there as well. It was tough fishing solo in the wind and I didn’t have much luck. I was able to trigger one strike from a northern pike on my Lucky 13. It bashed its head against the canoe a couple of times during the struggle. The pike measured out at thirty-four inches. After that I tried to work my way back to camp along the shoreline. The waves tossed me back and forth similar to riding a mechanical bull.
It remained windy throughout the day and I tried fishing a couple of more times but I didn’t catch anything worth speaking about, a few smallmouth, no real size. I basically rested most of the day and tried to keep my firewood dry for the evening fire.
Day 3 – September 11th
I began the day watching the sunrise ascend above the trees. Fishing the east side coves again didn’t prove productive so I went back to camp and waited for the wind to calm down. Once it did, I paddled back to the west side of the island to see about catching some more smallies on top-water. The smallmouth were there and the top-water fishing was fantastic. I caught a handful more of seventeen to nineteen inch smallmouth all on the Lucky 13. They were very aggressive, one time I had a smallmouth come loose from the lure and before the lure could surface another one snatched it up.
Requiring a break in the action I headed to a flat point and pulled over to stand up and stretch. During my break I decided to make a few casts with the Lucky 13. On my second cast, not more than ten feet from shore, I saw a huge pike come out of nowhere. I froze the lure as the pike looked on in caution. It slowly moved toward the lure and just sucked it off the surface. I let her swim with it for about a foot and then swung the rod back crossing her eyes. It made a couple of strong runs, but since I hooked it so close to shore it didn’t have a chance. I was able to coax her onto the level shoreline and grab her. I broke out the measuring tape and it said forty-three inches on the nose. This was the biggest pike I had ever caught before. Three big problems existed after the catch: 1) I didn’t have any film left in the disposable camera to take a picture of the fish 2) The spare camera was back at camp and 3) There was no one there to take a picture of me holding up my trophy. I just sat her back in the water and watched her swim away.
I fished the west side of the island off and on the rest of the day with the same success. I could not have asked for much better fishing. As I was taking another break on the same point where the pike was caught a solo canoeist stopped by to chat with me while he waited for his tandem canoe partners who were lagging behind. This gave me an opportunity to brag about the pike I had caught. Once the rest of his party arrived, he relayed my conquest on to them and I felt proud. It was nice talking to someone other than Rocky the squirrel back at camp.
During my evening fire I heard noises from a critter running through camp. I quickly turned on my headlamp and was able to see an otter. I watched as it ran across my granite front porch and dove into the lake. I could see its eyes reflecting back at me from the lake when I looked over that way.
Day 4 – September 12th
I made a decision to stay on North Bay instead of traveling to a new location. First off, the fishing was tremendous when the wind wasn’t blowing and secondly, the wind was blowing hard again and I didn’t feel up to moving in it. Most of the day was spent collecting wood and eating, trying to lighten the load for when I did move.
Late in the afternoon I couldn’t stand hanging around camp any longer and made my way out into the waves. I worked the canoe to the backside of the island for a wind break. Fishing wasn’t very good back there and I only caught a few small ones. I did enjoy watching a couple of bald eagles hovering in the wind for a period of time.
I headed back to camp to enjoy some dinner and a fire. It was still windy and starting to cool off compared to the other nights. I watched the stars peek out from behind the clouds every now and then. The whole day was nothing but wind. It was a long day.
Day 5 - September 13th
The day started off rainy, windy and colder than the past days. I had a couple of choices, go back to the tent and rest or go fishing. Since I did not come to the Quetico to be comfortable, I went fishing. Once again I had to find a calm section back behind the island to fish. Fishing was basically slow, a few pike and a few smallmouth of no real size were caught. I heard a helicopter hovering around the area and when I arrived back at camp I could see it over to east side of the lake. The ranger told me I might see one during the week. They were there checking out the major blow-down from the July 4th straight line windstorm from 1999. I assumed they were preparing this area for the planned prescribed burn.
On my second fishing session of the day back behind the island I saw the biggest flock of mergansers I had ever seen before. There must have been 50 of them back there diving and chasing bait fish. It was a site to behold. I did manage one nice eighteen inch smallmouth on the Lucky 13. Shortly there after I had a beaver swim by me as I was fishing a little pinch back there between the island and the mainland.
When I arrived back at camp I had a visitor running around, a not so shy grouse. I started a fire as it was beginning to cool off during sunset. Temperatures dropped down to 32 degrees that evening. It had been another difficult day to fish in the wind while solo.
Day 6 – September 14th
It was cold and calm with a hazy, misty fog floating through the air in the morning. As I stood along the shoreline at camp a bald eagle appeared out of the mist and flew directly above my head. It was so close I could hear the wind coming off its wings.
Since it was calm I was able to hit the west side of the island and do some more top-water fishing with the Lucky 13. In about an hour’s time I was able to pick up 5 smallmouth in the eighteen to twenty inch range. I wanted to stay longer but my plan for the day was to pack and move before the wind came up.
At the first portage to the stream heading south there were already four canoes there, three tandems and a solo. I had a brief chat and portaged by all of them. I paddled the stream up to the portage and did the up and over to Burke Lake. I paddled Burke Lake in a decent time to the landing at the last portage over to Bayley Bay. There must have been twelve or more people there. Three were leaving and the rest were just coming into the park. The people coming into the park had to be mostly rookies by the way they were reacting with giddiness to finishing such an easy portage. I briefly talked to one gentleman there, but no news was given to me about the” civilized” world. I still had another day before needing to know what was going on there anyway.
I was glad to see there weren’t any major rollers on Bayley Bay when I arrived. I made my way down to a campsite towards Inlet Bay. After setting up camp I decided to fish a little cove near by and to my dismay there was a motor boat back there fishing. He was fishing in a non-motor area. I made a few casts and then went back to camp to wait for him to leave. While I was there a float plane taxied off of Inlet Bay and couldn’t had been more than 100 feet above me. That was the first and only time I had ever seen a float plane in that bay.
I went back to fish the cove later and only came away with a few hammer handle pike. I did manage to get rather close to a bald eagle back there that didn’t mind posing for a few camera shots.
Day 7 – September 15th
I was up before the sunrise and started packing with a headlamp on. I loaded up the canoe and pushed off for one last paddle to the border. The lake was calm and had that early morning misty fog drifting around. The sun had started to climb over the trees as I made my way south. I had a sad feeling about leaving the Quetico, I normally do.
As I approached the border I could see the American flag was flying at half mast at the motor boat landing. I had hoped that someone just didn’t get the flag all the way to the top of the pole. Then I looked to the other side and saw that the Canadian flag was flying at half mast as well. My first thoughts were that someone extremely important must have died. It was all kind of surreal, paddling through the fog, being melancholy about my departure and seeing both flags flying at half mast.
At the top of Prairie Portage I met a father\son team from Wisconsin. I started a conversation with the son as his father went down to the ranger station. We talked about fishing for awhile until he just stopped and stated “you don’t know what is going on in the world do you?” I mentioned something about the flags flying at half mast and having no idea why they were that way. He started to explain to me that on September 11th a plane flew into the World Trade Center. I then asked if many people were hurt. He said, "You don’t understand, the World Trade Center buildings are gone, they are both gone." He went on to tell me another one hit the Pentagon and one more was heading towards the Whitehouse when it crashed in a field. I couldn’t believe or imagine what he was trying to explain to me at the time. The first time I was at Prairie Portage I was watching two countries exchange a goodwill paddle, and then on my next visit I was told about terrorists attacking the United States. There was a very stark contrast between the two days.
When I arrived back at the outfitters there were two gentlemen there trying to figure out how they were going to travel home since all of the flights were canceled. I overheard they were from Cincinnati, 90 miles south from my home. I offered two complete strangers a thousand miles lift home, but they opted not to take the offer. They said they would probably rent a car.
For the next eight hours I listened to the car radio about this news and was still having a hard time processing it all. Once I stopped and registered into a hotel room, I turned on the TV and watched it for the first time. I watched for the next three hours and then forced myself to turn off the TV and get some sleep.
For years I had told people going into the Quetico with me that World War III could happen and you would never know. This was not World War III, but it was an attack on the United States of America. It was four days after 9/11 before I had any idea about the attack of innocent people on American soil. God bless the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 tragedy. God bless America.
© 2014 Mike Teach