‘She was a legend’: Quetico ranger remembered for her guidance, grit

A woman talks on a radio.
Janice Matichuk, the longest-serving interior ranger in the history of Quetico Provincial Park, died last week from brain cancer.
Matthew Baxley | WTIP

In May 2001, Phil Clarke and two friends were paddling across Saganaga Lake when big waves submerged their canoes.

"And all of our gear started to float up and away," he recalled. 

They were a long way from shore. And the water was ice cold. Saganaga is a huge lake, 12 miles long. When the wind whips up big waves it can make for dangerous canoeing conditions.

A woman in a park ranger uniform talks with visitors.
Janice Matichuk greeted canoeists at the Cache Bay ranger station on Saganaga Lake for 35 years.
Courtesy of Deb Mark

"We didn't really realize the danger we were in,” Clarke said. After all, they were on a well-traveled route to the Cache Bay ranger station. “But it didn't take too long and I realized, boy, this is about the coldest I've ever felt. And that was kind of the end of my original recall."

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The next thing Clarke remembers, he was waking up in Janice Matichuk's bed at the ranger station, with warm cast iron skillets tucked between the blankets. 

Another group of canoeists had found him, unconscious, floating face up in the water in his life jacket. 

A Quetico Park pilot had flown him and one of his companions to the island. Matichuk rescued the third in her boat. 

"She saved our lives, basically, there were other people involved. But when you really think about the incident, she's the one that you give the most credit to," Clarke said. 

The summer before, a party of six men had capsized in the huge lake in frigid water. Matichuk saved five of them. The sixth, who wasn't wearing a life jacket, drowned before she got to them. 

"Whenever it was windy on Cache Bay, she had her binoculars out and she'd go out on the north side of the island and watch for paddlers bobbing in the wind,” said her longtime friend Deb Mark, who’s owned Seagull Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint Trail for more than 30 years. 

Matichuk may be most renowned for her daring rescues, which she tended to dismiss as just part of the job. 

But she's most loved for the friendships she forged with people who paddled to the ranger station to pick up their Quetico permits after crossing into Canada. 

"She became part of the trip for a lot of people,” said Joe Friedrichs, the news director for WTIP radio in Grand Marais, who’s written a biography of Matichuck called “Her Island: The Story of Quetico’s Longest Serving Interior Ranger” that's due out this fall.  

A woman points to a map as surrounding men observe.
Janice Matichuk talks to a group from Chicago in 2018 at the Cache Bay Ranger Station.
Matthew Baxley | WTIP

“They stopped to talk with Janice, they booked an entry point through Cache Bay, because they hoped that Janice would be there that day."

Matichuk first came to remote Cache Bay in 1985 when she was 30, with her five-month-old daughter Ingela in tow. She had never been there before. But she told Friedrichs last summer for WTIP's Boundary Waters Podcast that when she arrived for her first day of work, she knew immediately it was home. 

"I remember walking from the plane up to the cabin...I remember it so well, because I just knew this is where I belong. I had such a settling in my bones. Yep, this is where I belong. I just knew it." 

She'd spend every summer for the next 35 years at that cabin, checking in canoers, handing out permits, and educating people about the wilderness — what she called, the bush. 

"I really want them to get it,” she told Friedrichs. “I want them to just absorb the importance of how you treat the bush, and you respect the bush. Leave no trace camping... but it goes beyond that. It’s just an appreciation and a respect and a love for the wilderness."

And even after 35 summers, she never tired of the work, she said. 

"When I have a good day at the office I’m just pumped, I’m just, energized, because I know I got through to them. And that’s one of the biggest paybacks for me."

Carolyn Hipp of Hilbert, Wisconsin was one of the many people she connected with over the years Hipp was in her 50s when she met Matichuk, on her first trip to Quetico with her husband. They would come back every summer for the next ten years.

"I consider her a legend,” she said. “I have 11 good years of going to Quetico and she was responsible for that because there's no way that my husband Bob and I could have navigated those trips and been able to do what we did without having her knowledge and expertise to guide us along the way."

Two women sit while having a drink.
Janice Matichuk befriended many of the canoeists she met while working at the Cache Bay ranger station for 35 years. In 2017, she greeted Carolyn Hipp with an ice-cold glass of mint julip tea at the end of her trip into Quetico Provincial Park.
Courtesy Photo

They became good friends over the years, stopping to see Matichuk on their way into and out of the Quetico. On her last trip, Matichuk greeted Hipp with an ice-cold glass of mint julep tea upon her return to Cache Island. 

“She was so dedicated,” Hipp said. “And she was really concerned about having you be safe, making sure you knew where you were going, and that you were prepared.”

On her off days, Matichuk took what she called "hurt me" trips —50-mile solo canoe trips through the Quetico, in two days, one night. She wanted to be able to give more accurate information to visitors so they could have safer and more fulfilling trips. 

A woman in a wilderness more often traveled by men, Janice Matichuk was one of the toughest.

"There are a lot of males in this world who don't necessarily think that a woman out there at Cache Bay really knows what she's talking about, but she set them straight real easily,” said Deb Mark. 

Ryan Thompson of Minneapolis knows that firsthand. In 2009 his group paddled into 5-foot waves on Saganaga Lake. In hindsight, he says, they never should have been on the lake in those conditions. 

In front of him, a canoe from a different group capsized. The waves were so big it took about an hour to reach the drenched paddlers, who by that time had made it to shore. Thompson and his friends paddled in to help them gather their gear and make them coffee. 

That’s when Matichuk arrived in her motor boat. And boy, was she upset, Thompson said. “She went off on us. She was mad” at so many people paddling in such dangerous conditions. 

And she was right to be angry, Thompson said. After making sure they were safe, Matichuk called up outfitters to come retrieve the paddlers, cruising alongside in her boat to make sure they didn’t capsize again. 

To this day Thompson, who’s a Coast Guard veteran, marvels at her skill navigating a tiny 12-foot motorboat through such rough conditions. 

“Expert does not even qualify how good she was at driving that boat in those waters,” he said. 

Thompson had never met Matichuk before that encounter. But he knew immediately who she was when he saw her approaching. Her reputation preceded her. Even people who hadn’t met her knew who she was. 

“Hopefully what people take away from Janice Matichuk and her story is that you can do amazing things in really remote, isolated places, that impact so many people all over the world,” said Joe Friedrichs. “You can do amazing things on this earth.” 

Matichuk was diagnosed with brain cancer in June. She died last week. She was 66 years old.