Quetico Provincial Park: Bentpine Creek Loop (6 days, 100 km)
Quetico Provincial Park is well known to contain some of the best backcountry camping in Ontario. Located approximately 2 hours west of Thunder Bay, the park is a bit of a journey to reach, especially from southwestern Ontario, but well worth the payoff. Considered by some paddlers as the “holy grail” of backcountry paddling, the park has it all. Secluded lakes with no cottages or boats, low traffic, easy access, well-maintained portages, beautiful campsites, excellent fishing, abundant wildlife, and fascinating relics from the past. The list goes on and on.
This route was featured in Kevin Callan’s book “Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario”, and felt very well-paced and thought out. Large lakes dominate the first half of the trip, travelling eastward with the prevailing winds, followed by smaller lakes heading back west against the prevailing winds.
My paddling partner Danny and I had been talking about visiting Quetico for a few years, and now that we had friends who had just moved to Thunder Bay, we finally had an excuse to make the trip North. We visited in mid-late September, right at the start of the off-season, and were rewarded with cooler temps, no bugs, and almost no other people to be seen.
Trip Completed: September 2022
Starting Point: Beaverhouse Lake
Ending Point: Beaverhouse Lake
Total Distance: 100 km (Kevin Callan’s book says this route is 65 km, but I mapped it at 100 km)
Duration: 6 days, 5 nights
Difficulty: Intermediate. Knowledge of portaging and navigation is a must. Campsites and portages are not marked, and at times can be difficult to find.
Northwest Quetico Provincial Park. The nearest town to the put-in is Atikokan, ON.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario – Kevin Callan
Maps: Adventure Maps – Quetico Provincial Park and Area.
Government of Canada Toporama maps:
- 052C09 “Pipe Lake”
- 052B12 “Quetico Lake”
- 052B05 “Poohbah Lake”
*Toporama maps are available for free on the Avenza Maps app. You can use the app and Toporama maps on your phone to navigate, even without cell reception.
Paddle Planner website was a very useful tool for planning, as it was the only source I could find that showed campsite locations.
Campsite Reservations: N/A. Campsites work on a first-come-first-served basis.
Permits: During the summer months, you must select your access point and pay for your permit on the Ontario Parks reservations website. During the off-season, permits are unavailable on the park’s website, and must be filled out and paid for in person at the Service Ontario building at 108 Saturn Ave, in Atikokan. Permits work on the honour system; place your filled-out permit and fees (cash only) in one of the envelopes provided, and drop it in the box outside the office. There is a chart posted to help determine fees.
Know Before You Go
Season: We visited the park in mid to late September. September in Quetico can be very hit or miss, but it tends to be around 10-20 degrees during the day and 2-10 degrees at night. It has been known to snow at the end of September some years. The temps were as low as 5 degrees at night and as high as 20 degrees during the day on our trip. Leaf colours were just starting to turn at this time, but don’t expect a sea of red/orange/yellow just yet. There were also no bugs which was a huge plus, however water levels were low, making some sections more difficult to pass than they usually would be, especially boggy areas affected by beaver dams.
Cell Reception: No cell reception. A GPS messaging device (ie. the SPOT) or SAT phone is recommended.
Water: Water is abundant, but needs to be boiled, treated with chemicals, or filtered before drinking. Ecoli and giardia are present in this area.
Wildlife: Bears, chipmunks, squirrels and raccoons are all native to this area. Food needs to be hung, or secured in a barrel away from your campsite. Moose are also abundant in the area and can be very dangerous if you get too close. Ensure you give any animals you see plenty of space, and respect their distance.
Important: If you plan on fishing, by law, all fish hooks used in the park must be barbless. Consider catch and release, especially with larger fish, which are considered breeding fish and are very important to the ecosystem and fish populations.
Waste: No thunderboxes or outhouses are present on campsites. Please bring a trowel and dig a cat hole far away from any trail, portage, or campsite. No garbage cans at the trailhead/access point. Please pack out all your garbage.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: Two of our friends joined us for the first night of our trip, and rented a canoe from Canoe Canada Outfitters Inc, located in Atikokan, ON. They provide full and partial outfitting services, rentals, as well as shuttles. They were very helpful over the phone with planning the trip and getting info on permits.
Day 1: Beaverhouse Lake to Quetico Lake (21 km)
We started the day off at our friend’s house in Thunder Bay. We all woke up early and made the 2-hour drive to Atikokan to pick up our second rental canoe. Danny and I were using my canoe, while our friends Meagan and Brittany were taking the rental out for the first night only, then returning to Thunder Bay the next morning. We picked up the canoe and headed off to the put-in. The put-in is located at the end of an old gravel logging road, just off of highway 11. The road splits a couple of times, but is well labelled with which way to go, and ends with a dirt parking lot. From the parking lot, we carried our boats and gear down a flat and easy portage (500m) to the put-in, a small creek located in the northeast corner of Beaverhouse Lake. We were off!
Beaverhouse Lake is notorious for being windy and wavy at times, however, we lucked out and had only a gentle breeze at our backs. On Beaverhouse is when I decided to bust out the fishing rod, and within 5 minutes of casting pulled up my first ever lake trout! We managed to hook a pike, large mouth bass, and a massive 25-inch walleye, all before we reached the next portage along the Quetico River. I could already tell this was going to be an excellent trip. The portage along the Quetico River (150 m) was relatively wide and easy and goes around a set of rapids that looks like you may be able to line up in higher water, but alas, we were late in the season and in low water. After the portage, we continued east. We located our campsite on a point on Quetico Lake just 4 km east of the mouth of the Quetico River. We quickly set up camp, then continued north in search of pictographs.
If you continue approximately 3 km North on Quetico Lake you will eventually run into a huge set of cliffs on the northern shore. There are a variety of pictographs on these cliffs that range from faint red smudges to very obvious human figures, antlers, moose, and canoes, dating 100-400 years old! The pictographs can be found all along the shore, and become progressively larger and more distinct as you head east.
Important: These pictographs are extremely sacred to the indigenous peoples of the area and should be treated with the utmost respect. It is considered disrespectful to even take photos, so take mental pictures instead. The oils and pigments used to create them are also very delicate, so do not touch them.
After visiting the pictographs, we paddled back to the campsite during the sunset and we were blessed with perfectly flat waters.
Campsite 1: 48.55523, -91.949449. We set up camp on a western-facing point just east of Eden Island on Quetico Lake. The site was stunning, boasting a large fire pit, many flat tent spots, and an excellent view of the sunset. It was approximately 3 km to the first pictographs from our site.
Day 2: Quetico Lake to Jean Lake (24 km)
This day was fairly uneventful. This is where our companions Meagan and Britt parted ways with us and headed back to the put-in, while Danny and I continued east further into the park. We said our goodbyes in the morning and headed off. Quetico Lake continues directly east around 14.5 km before it turns sharply to the south. We had a gentle wind on our backs again, and made good time down to the end of the lake, turned south, and located the next portage. The next two portages (110m and 130m) lead in and out of the small Conk Lake. Both portages were fairly easy and non-memorable and landed us on the western shore of Jean Lake. We headed North on Jean and decided to camp on a point where Jean Lake pinches in on itself before it turns sharply to the south.
In hindsight, I would recommend continuing south, completing the 420m portage on the south end of Jean, and staying on Burntside Lake. Burntside is not much further and may have been the most beautiful lake we visited on our trip and had some nice looking sites.
Campsite 2: 48.535335, -91.701759 We stayed this night on a site located where Jean Lake narrows into a thin channel, right in the middle of the lake. The site was spacious, had 2-3 flat tent spots, and had a good view of the sunset. The site also had excellent fishing. I literally couldn’t make a single cast without pulling something out of the water, mostly pike or large mouth bass.
Day 3: Jean Lake to Sturgeon Lake (14 km)
This day was certainly interesting. Danny and I decided we want to take the scenic route from Jean Lake to Sturgeon, and so decided that instead of taking the 420m portage from Jean directly into Burntside, we would take the scenic route and paddle into Ceph Lake, take the 200m portage north into Albert Lake, then take the creek from Albert south into the western area of Burntside Lake.
We paddled to Ceph and took the 200m portage north into Albert. The portage was a little tight in places but fairly easy, ending at a steep put-in. Albert Lake was beautiful with very clear blue waters. We paddled northeast to the creek leading from Albert to Burntside, but were dismayed when we found the creek was blocked by a beaver dam, and past that was entirely dried up and impassable. From here we paddled back down south and took the 200m portage back into Ceph, then decided to try the 400m portage from the south side of Ceph down into Burntside. We found this portage without issue, but the problem arose when 100m in we were met with shoulder-height reeds and knee-deep mud. Another 100m and the mud became thigh-high high and we completely lost the trail. With our tails tucked between our legs, we turned back again, packed our canoe, and paddled back to the original 420m portage on the southern shore of Jean. We stopped for a quick lunch, only having made 2 km of progress, and vowed to stick to the original route from now on.
The 420m portage was beautiful, one of the nicest I’ve ever experienced. We continued south on Burntside Lake, which Danny and I both agreed was the prettiest lake we visited on the trip. It was dotted with lots of small islands, had majestic windswept pines, and a lot of exposed Canadian Shield. The geography of the area reminded me of Georgian Bay, which holds a very special place in my heart, so to find a lake like this so deep in the park felt very special.
We continued south, where the lake narrows, twists and turns, then open again onto Rouge Lake. From here we headed south briefly, before finding the 50m portage on the eastern shore into Jean Creek. Kevin Callan’s book lists a total of four 50m portages along Jean creek, however except for the first were beaver dams that could be easily lifted over. We made quick work paddling down Jean Creek and ended up on Sturgeon Lake which, much to our surprise, was completely calm and without wind despite how large it was. Feeling good, we continued south on Sturgeon and found camp among a series of small islands just at the mouth of Bentpine Creek.
Campsite 3: 48.429399, -91.723272. We stayed on a small island among a group of islands at the mouth of Bentpine Creek on Sturgeon River. The site was nice enough but small enough that we had to paddle to a nearby island for privacy to go to the bathroom, and to gather firewood. I awoke to an absolutely stunning view of the sunrise over Surgeon the next morning.
Day 4: Sturgeon Lake to Your Lake (14 km)
“Hey Danny, guess whose lake this is?? It’s Your Lake!” After a stunning sunrise, breakfast, and coffee, we were off again, finally heading back westward up Bentpine Creek. We continued westward as the creek continued to narrow, and while searching for the portage along the shore, we made a fantastic discovery: an enormous moose antler laying in the mud and muck next to an animal trail! We debated whether to practise good no-trace camping and leave it where we found it, but decided to take it with us, clean it up, and leave it at our campsite for other paddlers to enjoy. Finally, we found the first of a series of 3 portages.
The first portage (85m) is to the right of a babbling stream just under an enormous beaver dam. The problem was the first 50m of the portage were completely overgrown with waist-high poison ivy, then continued straight up a steep section of rock. Due to a poison ivy incident on our last trip, Danny and I elected to portage directly up the middle of the shallow stream, then clamber up the right side of the dam to the end of the portage. It was difficult, but was preferable to getting covered in poison ivy.
We admired a cool logging relic waiting for us at the end, an old cant hook, then continued west and did the next two portages along the creek, a 175m and a 125m, both fairly straightforward. We crossed March Lake, then completed another easy 330m portage to Trail Lake. This portage was littered with hundreds of old rollers, relics once used to move timber between lakes.
Everything seemed to be going fine until we turned a corner on Trail Lake and found that the area had been burnt to a crisp. We discovered later that forest fires had affected a large swath of land within Quetico just the year prior, to the point where they had to close the park down for a few weeks. The entire area from Trail Lake to Snow Lake was completely burnt, made up only of blackened tree trunks and short bushes.
We paddled through a narrow section of reeds from Trail Lake into Little Pine Lake which was much more difficult than it should have been, due to low water levels, then found the 30m carryover on the north end of Little Pine. This carryover was also much more muddy and difficult than it should have been, again due to low water levels, but we pushed through it into Snow Lake. On our way north on Snow, the area of burnt trees finally ended and the greenery returned, giving us a sigh of relief. The entirely burnt Little Pine Lake had been eerie, to say the least. Finally, our last portage of the day was also the longest, a 980m from the northeast corner of Snow Lake into Your Lake. The portage felt long but was relatively straightforward.
We began to paddle west on Your Lake searching for a campsite, and made it halfway down the lake before we realized a tragedy; we had forgotten the moose antler at the portage. Because we hadn’t seen any good campsite prospects yet and had seen some potential back on the east side of the lake, we elected to go back to the portage, pick up our treasure, and head east around a corner to our campsite.
Campsite 4: 48.47158, -91.86437. The campsite we found was very small, with a single tent spot very close to the fire pit, however, it had a good view of the sunset, and definitely had the potential for more tent spots if the downed brush was cleaned up a little. We scrubbed down the moose antler with a brillow pad and leaned it up against a stump, visible to any paddlers who might be passing by.
Day 5: Your Lake to Quetico Lake (18 km)
We woke up this morning to much cooler temperatures than the previous days and heavier wind. With dark clouds looming, Danny and I suited up in our long undies and rain gear, and leaving the moose antler behind, headed out westward. The previous day when we turned around to head back to the portage, I had mentioned to Danny that given our luck, there would be a pristine campsite right around the corner from where we turned around, and wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we go to the other side of the island we had stopped at, we were greeted with a huge campsite, with a sizeable fire pit, multiple flat tent spots and beautiful view westward.
Frustrated, we continued on, but our frustration didn’t last long. Leaving the antlers at our last campsite must have pleased the Quetico spirits because as we rounded the corner towards our first portage we spotted a large bull moose munching on the reeds right by the put-in, antlers and all! Danny and I were ecstatic, to say the least. After watching him from a distance slowly saunter into the woods, we approached the portage.
In Kevin’s book, this portage is marked as 360m, however, we found it to be much shorter, maybe 100m. The trail started just to the right of a thin stream and continued through shallow mud up alongside a beaver dam on Fair Lake. Maybe it was the stoke we had from seeing the moose, but this one felt very short and relatively easy. A quick paddle to the northeast shore of Fair Lake brought us to the first of our next two portages, both around 50m in and out of a small unnamed lake. Both portages had fairly muddy takeouts, and the first had a very steep incline mid-way through, where Danny and I had to hand the canoe down the slope to make it to the end.
Finally, we were on Badwater Lake. By now the wind was really starting to pick up, and we could see whitecaps forming out in the middle of the lake. Badwater is a long and narrow lake that can act like a bit of a wind tunnel, but Danny and I didn’t find it too bad as long as we stuck close to the northern shore.
In no time we were at the end of the lake and stopped for lunch at the portage put-in. The 1,400m portage is the longest of the trip. There were some muddy sections, however, someone had kindly placed logs across the areas of mud and water. The last 100m into Quetico Lake was quite muddy, requiring Danny and me to go up to our thighs in order to get the canoe out on the lake. We were finally back on big lakes again.
We continued north up the west bay of Quetico Lake until we reached a 60m carry-over across a peninsula that stretches across the lake. The portage is short, flat, and has sandy beaches on either end. The south side of the portage was perfectly flat and calm, but crossing the portage was like entering a portal to another world. The north side of the portage was violently windy, with very large whitecaps out on the lake. No way we were going to continue on our journey today. We decided to stop early and camp on the portage for the night, and enjoy the rest of our last full day in the park.
Campsite 5: 48.54606, -91.99096. Thankfully other people must have had the same wind problem as us, as there were fire pits located on either side of the portage, along with two nice tent spots. Unfortunately, it had been raining on and off all day, and the sand got stuck to everything. Danny and I agreed, we hate the sand, it’s so coarse and rough and gets everywhere.
Day 6: Quetico Lake to Beaverhouse Lake (8 km)
This day was fairly uneventful. We left our site early to try and beat the wind on Quetico and Beaverhouse Lake, and were thankfully rewarded. Paddling west from our portage campsite, we paddled back up the Quetico River, completed the easy 150m portage, ran a quick swift out onto Beaverhouse, and made our way north on Beaverhouse back to the 600m portage to the parking lot. It was in the parking lot that we met a man who was almost 80 years old with his son, who had been following us close behind on Beaverhouse. They were the ones who told us about the wildfires in Quetico the year before. After saying goodbye we packed up Danny’s Bronco once again, and enjoyed a celebratory beer and pizza at a small diner in Atikokan called the Outdoorsman, before heading back to Thunder Bay for the night.
I would say that the trip was an overall huge success. We had some difficulty when we tried to stray from the route between Jean lake and Burntside, but ended up making it to Sturgeon, our intended destination, just in time for sunset. Our biggest issues were probably low water levels due to being so late in the season. It made navigating a few of the beaver dam and swampy areas much more difficult than it needed to be, at times having to shove our canoe through the mud with our paddles. Had we gone in the spring or earlier in summer, higher waters would have made many of the portages much more accessible and shorter. That being said, we don’t regret choosing the dates we did, as the lack of bugs and cooler temps were a huge plus.
The fishing in the park was also incredible. We couldn’t leave a lure in the water for longer than 10 minutes without pulling something up, regardless of where we were. The route felt very well-paced; we had full days, made it to camp just before dinner time every day, and by the end of the day, we felt tired but not to the point of exhaustion.
Michael is a paramedic in London, Ontario, and was previously a tripper and leadership trainer at YMCA Camp Queen Elizabeth. He enjoys canoeing, rock climbing, beer, and dangling things in front of his cat.