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Canoe the Sturgeon Lake Loop in Quetico Provincial Park

Rainy River, Unorganized, Ontario



50 miles

Route Type



Added by Joe Whitson

This is an extremely remote and pristine Wilderness Area with very few people, but you will see wildlife like Moose, Bald Eagles, Wolves, and Loons. This is an excellent place for fishing for lake trout, walleye, pike, and bass and stargazing in a place with zero light pollution. You can cover 50 miles by canoe easily.

Quetico Provincial Park, just north of Minnesota in southern Ontario, is the Canadian portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Truly a wilderness area, the 1.2 million acre park has no roads, few trails, and allows in just a tenth of the visitors that canoe the BWCA to the south. With over 2000 lakes, the best way to explore the park is by water. Motorized boats aren't generally allowed and while people do kayak, the vast majority of visitors canoe.

While there are endless routes and loops you can take through the park that last from just a day trip to weeks and hundreds of miles, the route described here is fairly easy covering about 50 miles through five main lakes and, taken leisurely, lasts about a week.

To get to the park, start in Minneapolis/St. Paul and drive north to International Falls via I-35 and US-53. Cross the border into Canada in International Falls and follow ON-11 East to Atikokan, ON, the closest town to the park. This route begins and ends at slightly different places, so ideally you would park your car at Dawson Trail Campground on French lake and have an outfitter drop you off at the start point on Stanton Bay, but if you don't want to, you can easily adjust the route to end up wherever you left your car.

The Route:

Day 1: Put in at Stanton Bay and paddle south to the main body of the massive Pickerel Lake. Head west past the south end of Emerald Island and head into Pine Portage Bay. Your first portage (where you get out and carry your canoe and gear across narrow strips of land to reach another lake) is at the west end of the bay and leads 96 rods (portages are measured in rods, which are about 16.5 ft each) to Doré Lake. This portage is named Portage des Morts - yes, that means Portage of Death. Despite how short some of the portages are, they can be pretty difficult. Depending on how late you started, this is a good day of paddling, so grab one of the three campsites on Doré Lake in turn in for the night. If it isn't quite night, go fish for your dinner.

Day 2: Get up and start your day with a 120 rod portage to Twin Lakes. This is a pretty rough portage, so it'll be good to get done with it early. Then you can meander down a river to Sturgeon Lake. Island campsites are always the best and there are five in Sturgeon Lake. If you can, push to the bottom of the lake (about 5-6 miles) and camp in Sturgeon Narrows. Or if that is too far, stop at Blueberry Island half way down and head to Sturgeon Narrows the next day.

Day 3: Take a day to relax, you're on vacation, so don't kill yourself. But if you do feel compelled to be productive, paddle down Sturgeon Narrows for what is generally considered some of the best fishing in the park.

Day 4: Day trip to Chatterton Falls - Don't strike camp, but pack a lunch and take a day trip down into Russell Lake to check out Chatterton Falls. Just south of your Sturgeon Narrows campsite are some rapids. Unless you are an experienced paddler, don't run them, but portage around them instead. Then head east to the channel between Russell and Chatterton Lakes. This is point where you could depart from this route and loop back through other lakes, but that involves a couple unforgiving portages, so this route just heads back.

Day 5-6: Start back the way you came, up through Sturgeon Lake, Twin Lakes, Doré Lake, and into Pickerel Lake. At this point you should know your pace, so explore and find a campsite that fits your needs. End in French Lake, connected on the far east end of Pickerel Lake by a river.

Congratulations, I hope you saved a beer to celebrate, because it's a long way to civilization again. There is a little outfitter about half way between French Lake and Atikokan that'll treat to a warm meal and shower if you get there while they are open.

A Few Things To Remember:

  • You need a permit and a Canadian fishing license, so plan ahead and don't forget to apply for one ahead of time
  • Only use designated campsite if possible
  • Get a map and compass and learn how to use it. It is very easy to get lost and technology like a satellite GPS shouldn't be relied on
  • Prepare for unexpected and severe weather

This is an awesome park, so take it leisurely and explore the many nooks and crannies of the lakes and islands. Look for prehistoric pictographs and photograph wildlife. Hang up a hammock and nap. Swim. Harvest wild blueberries.

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