A week in the Canadian wilderness

The start of our trip on the Turtle River included a stop at White Otter Castle, a three-story log home built in the early 1900s by hermit Jimmy McOuat. (Marjorie Otto photos/Review)

Some campsites had spectacular views, such as this one on a rock ledge along a long set of rapids.

The Turtle River, in Turtle River Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, receives very little human traffic, making it ideal for more experienced paddlers who seek a more isolating camping trip. The isolation also made wildlife, like moose and beaver, more plentiful. (Marjorie Otto photos/Review)

Turtle River, down which we paddled, most likely got its name from a turtle-like pictograph located near its headwaters.

One of our campsites on an island between two sets of rapids held a small surprise: lady slipper flowers.

A respite from modern society

I wouldn’t call myself a super experienced paddler and camper, but I’ve done enough Boundary Waters trips to have a pretty good feel for how it works. 

It seems that as paddlers become more experienced, the goal is to get out of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where its popularity makes it a race to find a campsite before everyone else at the end of each day.

While it’s nice that people are getting out and enjoying the great outdoors, it’s also great to find other, more remote places to camp and challenge yourself. 

During the first week of June, I paddled with my dad and four of his friends on the Turtle River in Turtle River Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. 

It was my most remote and isolated trip. We didn’t see any other humans during our seven-day, more than 80-mile trip and the lack of connection to the outside world felt great — until we really needed it. 


Canadian castle

We picked the river and park because of a unique landmark, White Otter Castle, a three-story log home built in the middle of nowhere by a hermit in the early 1900s. It was a place my dad had heard about years ago and often talked about wanting to visit.

The castle was the first stop of our trip, after being delivered to our first portage via motorboat and paddling nearly 11 miles. 

The building, which underwent extensive rehabbing from 1992 to 1994 by the Friends of White Otter Castle citizen group, is located on White Otter Lake in the provincial park. Access to the park for tours of the castle can be done out of the cities of Ignace or Atikokan, Ontario. 

According to a small publication researched and produced by the Friends of White Otter Castle, it was built by Canadian Jimmy McOuat, a farmer turned gold prospector turned fisherman. After losing his life savings in 1900 when the gold mines closed near Rainey Lake, he moved to White Otter Lake and built a shack. 

McOuat lived there for a few years before deciding to build his castle, driven by a desire to not live and die in a shack, something a man once told him was all he’d amount to.

It’s unknown exactly when McOuat started building his castle, but the man carried logs, squared them up and even dovetailed them all by himself. He finished the home in 1915 at the age of 60. 

Despite all that hard work, McOuat was only able to enjoy it for a few years — in 1918, he drowned near his beloved home while netting for fish. When he never showed up to a friend’s home on a neighboring lake for Christmas, they knew something had happened to him. His body was found the next spring and buried at the castle. 


Bits of history, 

lots of wildlife

As we continued on through Turtle River Provincial Park, other bits of history — mostly remnants of logging — could be found along the rivers and lakes. 

Things like old beer cans, giant cables, logs in the water and abandoned logging camps were common sights. An occasional pictograph could be found as well, one of the more prominent being a turtle at the bottom of some falls, a signal of the start of the Turtle River for paddlers of bygone eras.  

Wildlife was abundant in the little-visited park. There wasn’t one portage that wasn’t littered with moose tracks and droppings. On our last day we finally saw a moose and her calf in a marshy area along the river. 

While it’s named turtle — most likely for that pictograph — the river really seemed as though it could have been called “Beaver River,” since we passed countless beaver dens and surprised a number of the large rodents as we went by. They’d slap their tails on the water, a warning to us interlopers.

Then again, it was on Turtle River where we saw some of the largest snapping turtles we’d ever seen — some must have been larger than an automobile tire. We thought against sticking our toes in the water.

There was also a nice variety of birds — countless bald eagles, trumpeter swans, terns, dipper and songbirds. 

With frequent rapids, we had plenty of fishing spots, some deep enough to catch walleye. Bass and northern pike were just as plentiful in the churning, oxygenated rapids.


What will we 

be missing

Most of the trip was fairly uneventful — we’d paddle anywhere from 10 to almost 18 miles a day, occasionally fishing and taking in the quietness of the river in our canoes. 

One of my recurring thoughts was what others are missing when they don’t have a chance to dive so deeply into nature for a break from modernity. One of my favorite aspects of remote camping is turning off my cell phone and not looking at it for a week. I never miss it. 

And with my anxiety and depression, these trips are the best medicine I have found; the weight of both mental illnesses is absolutely lifted from my chest and it feels like I can breathe again.

But as I treasured the escape from modern society, there were two instances where it still came to our rescue. 

On our last day of the trip, we had very strong winds — anywhere from 9 to 15 mph. We’d paddle and paddle and barely make any progress. 

The waves got taller and it became too treacherous to continue on. We considered making an impromptu camp on a beach, but saw a cabin and some people across the lake. When we reached them, we found out they too were from Minnesota — Bemidji — and they knew the owner of a nearby resort, Little Turtle Lodge. 

They offered to call him and he was able to get us with his pontoon, stacking our canoes and gear on the boat and bringing us the last three miles to the public landing. We thanked them all profusely for their help and the use of their modern tools. 

When we got back to the car, loaded up and headed out, the lack of modernity hit us once again. I turned on my cell phone and as I started getting a signal, one of my worst fears about remote camping came true: something terrible had happened when we were beyond the reach of technology.

My grandparents had been involved in a serious car crash, which had occurred almost a week ago by the time we got the news. While we were lucky they survived — albeit with a brain injury and banged up bodies — and I didn’t come back to funeral preparations, it was still a huge shock and I felt guilty for enjoying my time away from my phone. 

It was a reminder to enjoy the fleeting moments of peace when we can, because we never know when things can drastically change. 


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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