The short solo has become a way for me to get out on the water when timing is limited. With a business trip that I had to make to International Falls, it was a perfect excuse to put the boat on the rack and head into a rumored walleye lake with a single, long portage to reach. Wood lake is typically a busy entry for nearby lodge-day-visitors and the avid angler who is looking for a quicker way into plentiful and vast Basswood Lake.
Day 1: Drive to International Falls and the Return to Ely, September 19th
My original intention was to drive north to International Falls, MN, spend the night and return the next day. However, travelling past Ely and the western edge of BWCA’s Crane Lake by the quiet rural town of Cook and the scenic village of Orr was too tempting not to stop at Ely on my way south. With this game plan in mind, I left the Twin Cities early that morning around 6AM and began the long trek north. By about 3PM, I found myself racing south along Highway 53 back to Ely. I arrived in Ely around 4:45PM just in time to visit Piragis and pick up a permit before they closed for the day. Racing against the quickly falling twilight, I headed east out of town on the Fernberg Road to the Wood Lake parking area and portage which I arrived at around 6PM.
I quickly changed, pulled out my gear, and unstrapped my Champlain from the top of my Matrix and started trudging down the 180-rod portage to Wood lake put-in. The portage trail itself is well worn and winds through the woods with a gentle descent down to the creek and canoe put-in. A couple of minutes down the trail, I crossed a well- constructed wooden bridge and continued down the trail until a final left turn and descent of perhaps 20 feet down to the creek. Returning for my portage pack about 20- 30 minutes later, twilight was quickly falling on the trail and woods of the portage. I reached the swamp creek put-in with the chained power boats stashed to the right of the portage.
Losing the light, I quickly loaded my boat and pushed off into the creek. Paddling hard up the creek and through reeds, the evening was eerily still. Darkness fell quickly and at 8PM, I was paddling in darkness up the southwestern edge of Wood Lake searching desperately for one of two campsites I knew were there.
At this point, I ran out of daylight as the moon was behind overcast skies and I had forgotten to dig out a headlamp in my panic to get out on the water. Finally I found a high, rocky ridge that sloped impossibly down to the water on the western shoreline and pulled over to a small half-moon sandy take-out about 20 feet (6 meters) wide. Luckily it was just large enough for my boat and hauled my gear and canoe onto shore and frantically threw up my tent in darkness. My site was less than desirable. I was pitched a bit precariously under the branches of a tall, spreading hemlock on a sloping hill on the only grassy patch under the massive rock face. I clambered in for the night vowing to find a better site the next day.
My reward for working in the dark was the excited chorus of yipping, howling and barking of a nearby wolf pack at 9:35PM while I sat in my tent, headlamp beaming over my scattered gear in my slanted haven. The wild serenade was unbelievably beautiful and long; lasting perhaps 5 to 10 minutes until fading away into the darkness to the northeast. I drifted off finally, strangely content in surroundings.
Day 2: Dawning a New Day and Search for Another Campsite, September 20th
The next morning was overcast and gray and I awoke from a restless night. A very cantankerous beaver tail-slapped all evening just off my site to display an obvious displeasure with my presence in his territory. Taking the hint, I packed quickly, skipped breakfast, and threaded up my rods before pushing off in search of a better place to spend the next night.
As luck would have it, a better campsite was just around the corner and across a small bay. This was a gloriously calm almost wind-less morning which made for a pleasant slow paddle up the western shore. Shielded from the sun, I explored the bays of this shore.
As I slowly trolled a tiger perch hardbait, a couple of pike struck hard at my lure. I kept a 22″ pike for a solid shore lunch later, not daring to tempt the finicky conditions of that mid-September can often deliver. A second pike struck and I released this 20+inch pike, happy with my good fortune and calculating that one pike was enough work to filet even if it was going to provide a lighter meal. As I slowly set out once again, another bend of my rod informed me that something else was taking my popular bait choice. At the end of my line was a good sized bronze-gold 20″ walleye that weighed in at a healthy 2.6lbs. This was a personal best for me which is some indication of how far I’ve come in fishing exploits and how far I still have to go!
Here are the mandatory pictures (more for me than anyone else 🙂 of my morning’s work:
My rumbling stomach reminded me that I had yet to have breakfast. I turned my boat eastward to head up the channel that leads to the northern end of the lake. Two very nice campsites were nestled up there and if I was lucky, at least one would be open and the feast would begin. Before leaving the southern end of the lake, I took a photo this lovely end and the ruggedly beautiful shorelines:
Making for the northern half of the lake, I crossed a narrow east-west channel. A nice site sitting on a short grassy rise surrounded by trees was taken by a party of three. I turned the corner to my left and paddled into the northern section of the lake hoping for the last site to be open. Paddling around a rocky peninsula I was greatly disappointed to find a tent, green canoe and tarp. The site was taken. Bummer! I would be paddling back to one of the sites at the southern site. Just as I was about to turn around, a fit backwoodsman strolled out onto the peninsula and asked me my “screen name”.
He had seen my Flying Moose decal on my bow indicating my membership in the BWCA forum and he generously invited me to join him as he was at the end of his weeklong solo and had plenty of room. Twobygreencanoe had set up there about 5 days prior with his dog Ely, a spirited 9 year-old Springer Spaniel that loved to canoe camp as much as he did. I was beginning to think that this trip should be named “Lucky” as several times I had been saved from difficulty if not disaster. Bivvy site. Fish. Camp site. New acquaintance. Here’s the site pictures and the bay in front of us:
Here also is a bear-hanging rope technique that I was (and still am perfecting) with sailing block pulleys:
A special note on this as there are seemingly two camps (no pun intended) or schools-of-thought on whether to hang your food or not. BWCA rules require all food to be hoisted sufficiently above ground (12 – 15 feet up and at least 6 feet or so horizontally from the nearest branch). The second strategy is alternately referred to as the “stash-ers” or the “hide-ers” which usually involves a blue food barrel, air-tight lid and a secluded location. I won’t delve into that debate as there are plenty of discussions on several canoeing forums as to pros and cons. This is my engineered solution that I have borrowed from those who have far more experience and expert advice at this than I do. I can only say that with this mechanical advantage-pulley-system, heavy loads go up with a minimum of struggle now!
Twobygreencanoe and I fished the rest of the day heading into different areas of Wood Lake in the northen end. I fished closer to the portage with only a smallmouth strike that spit out my lure almost immediately. When we returned to the site later in the day, we settled in, chatted about our previously unknown shared acquaintances and connections. We retold stories of various routes, mishaps and adventures that we each had experienced on other trips and enjoyed the spacious site and beauty of Wood. Our day wound down as the temperature dipped in the evening into the upper 30s with a good, cheery fire to warm up by and enjoy the evening with pleasant conversation.
I privately reflected upon my good fortune to find a generous soul willing to share a site and the serendipity of companionship which lessened the loneliness one can feel on these solitary adventures. Finally around 9PM or so, we both turned in to our respective tents for a good night’s sleep.
Day 3: The Early Paddle Out
I never have a lot to say or write about my last day in as I’m coming out. Thoughts turn to home, a good cup of coffee for the drive, clean clothes and the comforts of civilization. I bid Twobygreencanoe goodbye as I got up and packed early. I had promised my wife to get back that day by early afternoon to pick up our daughter at her elementary school and I knew I had to hustle it up to make it. Shoving off around 7:30AM after a good breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and hot, steaming coffee, I felt ready to tackle the day and the 180-rod portage back to the lot and my waiting car.
I was able to get a better view and appreciation of the layout of the lake as I headed south. As I headed past my old bivvy site, a large bald eagle soared over my head, greeting me and bidding me goodbye at the same time. Three large white swans were also enjoying a morning paddle on a swampy backwater bay to my left. I took a few more photos as I re-entered the creek and swamp area on my way to the portage:
After an uneventful double portage, my usual, I found myself back at the parking lot and loading my gear. The wind was picking up a bit but the day was clear and sunny, warming up nicely. Driving off, I made a mental note to revisit this gem of a lake again with my family in tow next season. Here’s a final shot of the message board at the portage trail/parking lot for Wood Lake: