High on the Monument Portage, where Canada and the U.S. are a footstep apart, you meet a white-haired violinist of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. A heavy pack is strapped to his back, but he smiles and slows and says, "Nice day," then pushes across to the American side. He is using the Quetico-Superior wilderness of Minnesota and Ontario for relaxation and release from the cymbals and crescendos of his lyrically ordered world. Others use the wilderness in other ways. Guides will tell you of the middle-aged woman who pushed a canoe across lake and portage for three days, cleared a camp site and sat down to a quiet week of unrelieved knitting. Another guide recalls how he took a pair of city slickers to an isolated island deep in the Quetico, then watched them as they played gin rummy for a week, oblivious to the leaping bass on the water and the wacky call of the loon.
The Quetico-Superior wilderness may be used in myriad ways. Bird watchers plunge into its depths, there to indulge in orgies of feathered voyeurism. A botanist from New York shuffles around the bogs and muskegs and turns up nine varieties of wild orchid. Anglers arrive with flies and bucktails to meet the challenge of trout, northern pike, walleyes and bass. Rockhounds chip at the slopes of granite, basalt and greenstone, collecting infinitesimal treasures from the Canadian Shield, the oldest exposed rock face in the world. Boy scout troops dissolve into the forests, earning merit badges and learning firsthand the harsh realities described in the boy scout handbook. Fathers and sons push into the canoe country, not so much to learn about nature as to learn about themselves.
No wilderness area of North America better meets their needs than Quetico-Superior. It is a balsam-spiced retreat of some 3,000 square miles, sprinkled with emerald and sapphire lakes and laced with meandering rivers—described by an early explorer as "verey Gental but verey Sarpentine"—extending nearly 200 miles along the border of northeastern Minnesota and western Ontario. The wilderness is two great forests running together at the national boundary: the Superior National Forest in the U.S., Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Both were set up in 1909; they are administered separately but in close cooperation. Superior carries out the U.S. Forest Service idea of the multiple use of parks. There are some roads, some picnic areas, many lodges and outfitters and even some logging south of the border, but mostly there are deep, dense forests.
To the north, Quetico lies entirely unblemished. Along its edges you may find the slightest incroppings of civilization, but Quetico itself is the special property of the wind and the water, the otter and the bobcat. Canada goes out of its way to point out that in Quetico there are no stores, no lodges, no bait shops, no roads. Logged and burnt over years ago, it has almost succeeded in re-establishing its virgin nature. One travels by canoe, one camps with the moose and the bear. One walks across tree-to-tree carpeting of sphagnum and duff, which do not know commercial man. Two tenderfeet returned to camp with a story about two large dogs seen swimming across a lake a few miles away. Whose dogs were they, and what were they doing so far away, they asked. The dogs, of course, were timber wolves, worth $25 each in bounty. (Another tenderfoot made the opposite error; he shot a dog and tried to collect a bounty on it.)
The wolves of Quetico-Superior may be seen and not feared; they are too wise to venture near man. Not so the bear. The forest abounds in black bears, and some of them are conniving and crafty, especially in years when the wild blueberry crop is bad. One outfitter lost $4,000 in gear to bears in a single year. Bears creep into camp late at night and rip through packs for food. They have learned that tin cans contain goodies and they will bite right into them. One hapless bear, on a recent night, bit into a DDT bomb.
Quetico-Superior once belonged to the Crees, the Sioux and the gentle Chippewas but then became the land of the French voyageur, the wild, abandoned adventurers who canoed and portaged the boundary area en route to Montreal and Quebec with their cargoes of fur. Now no trace of them remains except for the faint portage trails they established, the lakes they named and the unforgotten songs they sang, brought to French Canada by the first settlers in the early 17th century:
En roulant ma boule roulant,
en roulant ma boule....
trots beaux canards s'en vent baignant,
rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant.
Every hour the voyageurs would stop canoeing and smoke a pipe; thus distances across the Quetico-Superior lakes became measured in pipes instead of miles. Portages were measured in poses, or deposit places. Coming to a portage, the voyageurs would unload and transport their gear as far as they could without collapsing, then drop it at the pose and go back for more, traveling thus to the end of the portage. Nowadays portages are measured in rods, 16� feet each, or two huffs and a puff for the typical American woodsman.
The land passed from Indians to voyageurs to loggers to tourists, but all as passers-by only. The Scandinavian 3 and the Finns, and then the Croats and Slovenes, worked the iron deposits. The Finns, in particular, brought their own ways to the wilderness. To get rid of bears, they recited:
Hide thy claws within thy hair-foot,
Shut thy wicked teeth in darkness....
Throw thy malice to the mountains,
And thy hunger to the pine trees,
Sink thy teeth within the aspens.