Quetico: Basswood Lake to French Lake (6 days / 142 km)

This route is a south to north journey actress Quetico Provincial Park, starting at the Canada-USA border and going up to Dawson Trail Campground. It covers a vast amount of land and the route can be done with several variations. It is a flatwater route that covers 30-40 portages, the longest at 970 meters.

This route takes you through some busy and quiet parts of the park and an endless amount of beautiful campsites and fishing areas. From the big majestic lakes of Agnes and Pickerel to the small and peaceful unnamed lakes – there is something for everyone.

Trip Completed: May 2018

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Prairie Portage Ranger Station

Ending Point: French Lake Access Point

Total Distance:142 km

Duration: 7 days, 6 nights

Difficulty: Intermediate

Location

South to North of Quetico Provincial Park, on the Canada, US border. The closest town at the start is Ely, Minnesota and the end is Atikokan, Ontario. Note: If you are crossing an international border on this trip, extra steps need to be taken to allow remote entry.

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: None

Map: Quetico Chrismar map 2017 version

Campsite Reservations: None. There are no designated sites in Quetico.

Permits: Permits can be purchased at the Ontario parks website. You reserve based on your access point and the number of nights in the park. 

Outfitters & Shuttles

LaTourelles provided the boat shuttle from Moose Lake to Prairie Portage. There are also several different outfitters in the Quetico and BWCA area on either side of the border. If you drive your car there is parking available for a fee at LaTourelles and parking is available at Dawson Trail Campground (French Lake) or Stanton Bay access point, with your park permit. Floatplane pickups or drop-offs are also an option and would prevent a border crossing

Trip Report

Day 1: Inlet Bay of Basswood Lake to Agnes Lake (25 km)

After getting a boat tow from Latourelles, we portaged over the man-made dam along the Canada-US border onto Basswood Lake by 8 am. Basswood is a massive lake spanning dozens of kilometres of the border, but we would only be on it for a short time. We headed onto North Portage, a 640 m portage in Sunday Lake. Although long, this portage is in good condition as several years ago a boy scout crew did a lot of work on it. On the opposite side of Sunday Lake there at two portages, a 970 m portage into Meadow Lake and then a 560 m portage into Big Agnes Lake. Don’t let these large portages scare you, as a long paddle up Agnes Lake follows. We had lunch at the end of these two portages.  

On our way up Agnes Lake, we stopped at Louisa Falls. It is a long waterfall with a pool in the middle. The portage beside it is very steep and I was glad I didn’t have to carry anything up it. We camped around 10 km up from the south end. We saw a moose crossing the lake as we paddled towards our site. Moose are a common sight in Quetico and are more common in the spring.

Campsite: There are no marked campsites in Quetico, and the Chrismar map does not have any marked campsites, but some outfitter maps and online resources have site information. In more popular areas there are plenty of campsites and it shouldn’t take long to find one, Sometimes deeper into the park there are fewer. 

We stayed on a site on Agnes Lake, north of East Lake atop a rocky cliff.

Day 2: Agnes Lake to Unnamed Lake near Trant Lake (11 km)

We woke to a cold May rain and heavy winds. Agnes, as a long and narrow lake at 25 km can get very windy. To beat the strong wind we crossed the lake and headed into a small chain of lakes and small portages. Most of them are unnamed. Most of the portages are short but less heavily used and can be rocky. The rain had stopped by lunch and we ate on a rocky landing. Every one of these lakes is a different experience and the small size is peaceful and a nice reprieve from the wind. We continued on through the chain and camped on a small lake. 

Campsite: Unused site on a small lake. Peaceful. 

Day 3: Unnamed Lake to Agnes Lake (11 km)

We left our small site and saw a Moose and her calf hop from the lake and into the first as we paddled by. The weather was sunny and warmer than yesterday. We spent the day continuing through the small lakes. There are some longer portages but they pass through beautiful cedar and red pine stands. The portage between Hurlburt and Woodside lakes (600 m) was pretty steep. It was slower moving as there were many portages. We camped on Agnes. This entire side chain of lakes was additional as both ends connected to Agnes. The smaller lakes are quieter and allow minimal effect from the wind and weather.

Campsite: Big rocky point on Upper Agnes. It was a big, beautiful site with a gorgeous sunset with a hint of blackflies. Bug season is just starting. It had a nice bunch of benches around the fire ring and several tent pads, some on the lower level and more on an upper level

Day 4: Agnes Lake to Baird Lake (30 km)

We woke to a peaceful and quiet day. We packed up camp from our beautiful site on Agnes and headed into the chain of portages that would lead us into Kawnipi Lake. There are three different ways to go from Agnes to Kawnipi, and we took the Keewatin Lake route. It consists of three decent portages, all around 300-400 meters. Once on Kawnipi Lake, we enjoyed a relaxing paddle up the big lake with the warm and calm weather. Kawnipi is a big lake with many long bays and several days could be spent here. But we continued on. On our way up around Rose Island, we got lost trying to maneuver through islands and channels so we took lunch on a nice rock and reoriented ourselves. 

After lunch we continued up Kawnipi and over to the Kashipiwi River for the first and only section of moving water of the trip. The current is calm but picks up as you approach the portage onto the river. The portage is under 100 meters and follows a steep rapid. Once on the river, we paddled upstream (once you depart from the portage the current becomes gentle) and headed towards the next portage. The start of the 200 m portage into Heronshaw Lake can be tricky to find as you have to enter a hard-to-see wetland. Once in the right area, the portage will be obvious but the water may be low. Again, the portage into Metacryst Lake can be hard to see in a dense cedar forest but it has been widened recently. After the first portage into Baird Lake, we went over the last short one that has two options. One that is very steep and one that is very wet. Take the steep one that is more south, as it is very short and is preferred by the park staff. We camped on Baird Lake.

Campsite: One of my all-time favourite campsites in the park, on an island on the west end of Baird. It has a nice long rock point to hang out on and view the sunset.

Day 5: Baird Lake to Antoine Lake (27 km)

On this day we went through one of my favourite small chains of lakes in the park and paddled on arguably the most iconic lake in the park.

From Baird, we went through Cub, Eag, Camel, Nan and Fred. These small lakes have a more boreal feel than other parts of the park and paddling Cutty Creek is beautiful. Most of the portages in this area are very short, just passing around rapids or beaver dams. Low water in the late summer can lengthen some of these portages a bit and make the river harder to navigate. We saw our first group of campers on the trip in this area.

Ending the portage onto Fred Lake is a rapid change in scenery. First, this portage starts at different places over the course of the summer as a boulder field appears on the creek before. Follow the grassy area on the east side. The portage has a campsite at the north end that is popular. On Fred Lake, there is a beautiful beach, where we had lunch, that opens you up to a large area that doesn’t require paddling.

We kept paddling up Fred Lake, into Heron Bay and then into Sturgeon Lake. Sturgeon can get very windy as it is a large lake but you can spend days on it and there are many campsites. We kept going onto Antoine Lake. Antoine Lake is a pretty and clear lake one ridge over from Sturgeon. We took the portage into Antoine in the Sturgeon Narrows. This portage is just over one kilometre and goes up and down a ridge. The beginning was also pretty wet but that could have been leftover from the winter melt. We camped on Antione.

On this day I saw my first tick of the trip. Ticks are common in Quetico in the spring and they die off mostly by summer. They are much more prevalent in the west of the park but can be found everywhere. If portages or campsites have long grass or are in wetland areas, check for ticks after!!! They especially love cracks and crevices (anywhere on your body) but also in flaps of clothes such as the zipper of zip-off pants. 

Campsite: Small island site in the middle of Antione. Nice sunset.

Day 6: Antoine Lake to French Lake (38 km)

We woke up sad that the trip was almost over and happy with how it went. We paddled out of Antoine through Ram Lake. Both of these portages can be muddy but dry out later in the season. The end portage from Ram to Sturgeon can end at two different places. If water is high, it is right when you see the water in the wetland area. If the water is lower, you can continue north along the rocky ridge. This is easier to see when on the portage but can be hard if entering the portage from Sturgeon. 

We kept going up Upper Sturgeon Lake into Deux Riviere. This river can get very low in August if water is low and you might have difficulty paddling it depending on the beavers that year. There are typically 3 beaver dams to pull over. We kept going up Twin Lakes into the Deux Rivieres portage and the “Portage des Morts” after Dore Lake. These portages are very easy for their length and well maintained. They were historically a route of the Voyageurs and are currently a very popular route. Keep an eye out for the sunken wooden barge on the north end of the Deux Riviere portage. They can be muddy but they have wood laid to walk on. We had lunch on the beach on Pickerel Lake and saw our first campers in days.

The rest of the day we had a nice paddle for the 20 kilometres of Pickerel Lake with a tailwind. We went into the Pickerel River, into French lake and that was the end of the trip. You could also finish at Stanton Bay on Pickerel if you want to shorten this paddle.

Reflections

This route can be done in many more days if needed and has several possible different variations. It is a journey and it is a great feeling at the end of having crossed the entire park. It can also be done in the opposite direction, and with the different route, possibilities can feel like a completely different journey. Although the trip was in May it ended up being reasonably warm and was before the worst of the bug season. One benefit of tripping in May is we only saw two groups of people the entire trip. Quetico is typically a very quiet park in general especially on a cross-park trip that can take you to remote areas.

The trip went really well and although there were some long days, it was worth it. It takes you through some of the most desirable parts of Quetico and into some hidden gems as well. You get to see many different sides of park ecology. 

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Author Bio

Avid adventurer, nature lover and lover of all outdoor sports. Lots of canoe tripping, some backpacking, cycling, tree hugging or any sport I can try. 

Instagram: @katietripp12