Family Canoe Adventure: Sawbill to Cherokee and Back Again
Dates: July 2nd – 5th, 2014
Length: 4 days
Canoe/Gear: Wenonah Champlain
Lakes: Sawbill, Ada, Skoop, Cherokee
Midsummer is a typical time of fireworks, family picnics, outdoor barbecues and parties to celebrate the holiday of independence but also to mark midsummer. Our trips due to my wife and my work schedules seem to lead us northwards to the woods and a new adventure. This time around we opted for a southern entry to the BWCA because we had largely ignored the southern region of BWCA perhaps due to my own personal preference for boundary lakes. Sawbill would be our perfect introduction despite its heavy day and overnight use. The lake itself is a gorgeous venue surrounded by deeply forest ridges and deep blue waters. If you can ignore the floating coolers and out-paddle the hordes to the northern end, your first set of portages will land you in more serene settings with fewer paddlers and reward with the beauty and stillness you seek (if you paddle ‘n carry far enough!). We did. And this is our story: Cherokee lake.
Day 1, July 2nd: In the Dark
Turning up Rt. 2 heading north on the dirt road to Sawbill campground as the sun was setting in the western sky. A magnificent orange glow bathed the hillsides and forests as we rolled along. Arriving at Sawbill Lake and the USFS campground we noticed two things. The bugs were out and darkness had fallen. In a bit of confusion, we looked for a campsite map to find our site which turned out to be back up the road with a couple of other access sites. We didn’t climb into our tent until about 11PM but we all quickly fell asleep.
Day 2, July 3rd: Bright and Early
Breakfast at camp was a slow affair. I made coffee and rifled through the food packs to find our breakfast offerings. Everyone else in my group was very slow to wake and climb out of the tent. It was becoming clear that this would be the pace of the day.
I had loaded most of our gear in separate dry bags and kits. The back of our car was littered with disorganized bits and pieces of canoeing gear from various packs which slowed us down getting breakfast together. We ate and packed slowly, eventually rolling down to the Sawbill Outfitter general store to pick up our permits around 9:45AM and watch the BWCA training film. The sun blazed overhead by the time we made the dock at 10:30AM dodging a group or two coming out and putting in. This is a busy entry.
At high noon and full sunshine we were finally ready to shove off. Only later did we discover that our 56-in. gold-and-green metal plastic paddle and one of our water bottles was left on the dock never to be seen again. We paddled north searching for the portage, quizzing a group of three young guys doing a selfie at the last campsite. They confessed that they were lost and looking for the portage as well. With a bit of map consultation, we paddled around the wooded peninsula to our immediate left and landed at our first carry.
The portages up to Cherokee are generally short except for your last carry of 180 rods over the Laurentian Divide. The first carry of 85 rods has a rocky takeout but quickly becomes a flat, well trodden path to Alder Creek. After a short paddle upstream, the second is a 75 rod that undulates up and down first over rocky granite outcropping and then climbing through the forest to Ada Lake. These were very congested portages with groups of tandems
descending upon us and landing right behind us so we queued up, letting some put-in and others to exit and move on to clear our paths. The third portage that day involved confronting the boggy section of creek that led to Skoop. We paddled about ½ way and my wife and I got out, sunk knee deep in the grassy ooze and lined the canoe up to an impassable set of boulders in the middle of the stream. Abandoning this tactic, we unloaded and carried the rest of the way to the original landing at the stream cascade. We didn’t know that there were only 10 rods or so left to carry because everyone flopped down, wet, muddy tired and hungry.
There are no campsites between Sawbill and Cherokee and this fact did not cheer up the rest of my group. It was about 5PM and everyone’s energy levels were low. The last, longest carry was still ahead to Cherokee Creek. I coaxed my party back onward. The Cherokee creek portage rises gently through the woods from this side and then snakes its way down into an eventual muddy slog before terminating at a wide, sandy put-in on the creek. Our kids, exhausted and hungry made the first trip and my wife and I went back to shuttle the rest of our gear across.
Finally shoving off we vowed to take the first, best site we could find once we hit the lake at the southern end.
Day 3, July 4th: Then the Rains Came.
There is a children’s book about the rains on Kapiti Plains in East Africa and a young herder who waits for these rains to grow the Savannah grasses so that his herd can eat. Listening to the pitter-patter on the tent the next morning reminded me of this favorite short story that we used to read to our kids when they were young.
The rains came and went during the morning, setting the tone for the day. We crawled out to set up breakfast and plan our day but not much could be accomplished. I set up a trolling line and launched out into our little bay to the north of us but had no luck.
I also tried my luck with a few Rapalas off of the fantastic granite promontory that accentuated our site. We duck in and out of the tent all day, playing games, grabbing a bit to eat, the kids playing around the site which had endless trails and paths back up behind us and down to the water. Finally my wife and I decide to try and make it up the lake a ways to explore better fishing spots. Our hope is a fish dinner for the evening.
As we launch from our site, thunder and lightning in the distance. It’s 2PM and we will be weather-bound for the rest of the day.
Huddling in our tent, the UNO cards came out. We read to each other. I jotted down trip notes in my journal and we played many rounds of hearts and talked about other trips we’d done to the Numbered Chain, Saganaga, Loon and Agnes.
Dinner that night was a hearty meal of rice, sauce and sautéed vegetables with hot cocoa and tea during a break in the weather. Camp chores led to a bit of an early bed, listening to the pair of loons calling to each other out on southern Cherokee.
Day 4, July 5th: Time to Go.
It’s time to pack and leave and this family is ready to go. Quick breakfast leads to a motivated pack-up and off
down Cherokee. The portages went fairly quick although there was another mini-mutiny from our kids about double-portaging. Even the marshy, muddy line-the-canoe portage from Skoop to Ada went well. Our final portage brought the final challenge from the wilderness. We paddled south on Sawbill, relieved that the portages were done and all that remained between us and our campsite, showers and raiding the Sawbill store back at the campground was an hour or two of paddling. The rainstorm that had been threatening all morning had other ideas as a torrential downpour forced us onto an island. We watched a flotilla of 5 other canoes head for shelter further south. As the deluge passed, bright sunshine parted the clouds. We loaded and made our way south landing on the docks of Sawbill Campground a little before noon.
A happy exhaustion takes over as we unload, find our camp, dry out and head for showers. Treats, cold drinks and snacks in the store were our rewards for surviving our trip.