Early Spring Solo in Quetico: Hard Portaging to Kahshahpiwi

Prologue

I was wrapping up some loose ends in my office Friday morning when I decided to just begin throwing stuff sacks and gear into the back of my car. When the canoe was finally loaded on the car, I drove north leaving Minneapolis just before noon. Stopping in Ely for a couple of errands I drove out to Moose Lake to bed down until my tow up Moose Lake the next morning.

Parks: Quetico & BWCA

Canoe: Souris River Quetico 17′

Route: Prairie Portage-North Bay-Isabella-Kahshahpiwi-Grey Loop

Time: Estimate 5-7 days (actual 5 days)

May 2nd (Day 1): Packed and Ready

Saturday dawned bright, clear and sunny. I’m cold, cramped and stiff from an unrestful night sleep but I’m packed and ready to go.

Packed up and ready to go

Packed up and ready to go

I meet Bob Latourell at 6:30 and by 7 we are speeding up the lake in his tow boat. In minutes, I’m deposited at the deserted Prairie Portage ranger station still slumbering from the winter sleep. A quick goodbye and the boat on my shoulders I start the first schlepp of my gear down to Inlet Bay put-in. I quickly complete my self-registration and push off for Bayley Bay and Quetico. Paddling hard, I am finding that my canoe glides effortlessly over the glassy smooth water. There is no wind. It’s still and eerie. I am making good time and after an hour and a half am soon unloading at the 85 rod, well-trodden dirt path. I later dubbed this the “garden walk”. Little did I know that this would the easiest portage of the entire trip.

Picturesque and calm, Burke Lake is a peaceful solitude with few wooded islands dotting its bays that unfold to the east and wooded hills that dive into the blue water’s edge on my left. Sun burning overhead, the lake offers little resistance as I paddle effortlessly to the first of two portages on the north side of the lake that parallel the stream that empties into North Bay. The second portage however is rocky and I am having trouble dragging my heavy gear out of the boat and now stumbling up the trail. I misread the trail and put in at a high-water put-in. I fish out my painter line from the bow and gingerly maneuver my canoe, grunting as I lift it over the last few boulders and jagged submerged rocks. Heat is building with direct sunlight overhead. Draining one of liter-water bottles, I begin paddling due north across North Bay, this last stretch of big water. Forty-five minutes later navigating by my compass and map, I’m stopping at a peninsula campsite for a lunch break and to filter water.

Lunch Break on North Bay

Lunch Break on North Bay

I’ve gone through 6 liters this morning and know that I will need an equal amount before the day is over to make my destination of Isabella by the evening. This is a beautiful peninsula site with a well-developed fire ring, pine needle floor and high Norway Pines towering above.

Lunch site on North Bay

Lunch site on North Bay

Old trapper metal spring traps lay around the camp site from a bygone era.

Some trapper abandoned them after snaring his or her share of the unsuspecting beaver who are now busy damming up the small tributary creek that I must enter next to continue paddling north.

It’s about 2PM now and I need to get going. I push off and start the couple of beaver dam lift-overs and the 65 rod portage off the tributary to a No Name lake, a couple more portages and finally Isabella Lake where I will spend the night.

Single trap on North Bay

Single trap on North Bay

Tired, thirsty and looking for one of two sites supposed to exist on this lake, I stop at a high-ledge camp site where the lake necks down to a pinch with 20 to 25 foot granite canyon walls on either side. The take-out is weedy and buggy, less-than-ideal with the tent platforms and fire ring a climb up but I’m too tired to care. I decide to the leave gear down below and only drag my tent and food up top to set up. Bedding down for the night, I flick the first tick of the season out the tent door after finding it making a valiant assault up my bandana crawling towards my head & neck region. The battle is joined!

May 3rd (Day 2): Hard to Move

Bright sunshine filters in through my tent fly. The achiness has settled into my muscles. I’m having an amazing run of luck though with the weather. I lounge a bit over breakfast coffee and oatmeal, planning my day of supposedly hard, steep portages into the Side Lake area, my gateway to Kahshahpiwi the ultimate goal for the day.

Breakfast view on Isabella Lake

Breakfast view on Isabella Lake

Finally I am ready to clamber back into my boat at 10:30AM, a late start that I will pay for later. Paddling down the lake I found the first portage hidden in a jumble of rocks next to a gentle, gurgling stream emptying from the No Name lake on the other side. The portage poses little problem and I have my loads across in no time to be greeted by a stiff wind coming directly at me from across the lake. Bummer. Setting my compass reading, I’m staring across the lake at what looks like a sheer granite face on a cliff wall. “This can’t be right”, I think to myself as I pull hard to cross this small lake. Searching a likely easier, wooded grade that heads up the same hillside, I am turned back from this moose path to search the shoreline again. The portage is about 30 yards southwest down the shoreline and indeed climbs the sheer cliff face on a razor-thin goat path.

This and the next portages seem identical in their steepness and level of effort – they go by in a blur of pain and sweat as I find myself purposefully, slowly ascending two steep slopes only to return two more times to reclaim my gear. I’ve had to go to triple-portages as I’ve found that my portage pack is greatly over-packed with gear and my food barrel is overloaded as well with several extra days of food, largely unneeded for this trip. Adding insult to injury, I get lost on the second portage where it is joined by a portage trail coming in from another lake to the south and west. Fatigue is setting in and my typical early season kitchen-sink packing is taking its toll.

The afternoon wanes bringing on clouds and an occasional light drizzle. I begin to worry as I can feel the slight chill return to the air. No one wants to be caught out on a lake with weather coming on and temperatures dropping. Hypothermia is always lurking. Finding Side Lake puts me only two portages away from my goal at about 4PM. Time is ticking by. The next to last portage is a short 20 or 25 rods by my guess but it’s a stream bed littered with ankle-busting basketball-size boulders. The path is not evident in this maze of stones. Carefully, I pick my path tiptoeing with each of my three loads to the boulder minefield and paying particular care with the canoe which can hang-up on the branches above if I’m not careful. I am congratulating myself now for reaching the last No Name Lake. All that separates me from Kahshahpiwi is a 185 rod portage (a little over a half mile) that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

I’m thinking I’m home free now. That’s a good thing. My muscles ache, my legs are getting rubbery and I can tell that my strength is waning. It’s time to stop soon. Anywhere, but soon. The portage into Kahshahpiwi Lake from the Side Lake direction is different from how it’s depicted on the McKenzie map. I’m confused. Where is it? I paddle past a campsite on my right and spy a trail going up into the woods. Goat path? Moose trail? I clamber out to inspect only to be disappointed. Realizing my error I climb back into my canoe seat and take up my paddle. Staring at my map, it dawns on me that the trail might be split into two. I paddle forward to find one very short portage on my right of 2 or 3 rods going up a dirt embankment. Unloading quickly, I climb the 10 to 15ft embankment to reach a granite bald-face outcropping only to discover that the trail stops — disappears actually— into the water of the swamp. Nothing even to my right to skirt the edge of the swamp. Forced to reload the boat, I hurry. Daylight is waning and my stomach is grumbling accompanied by a powerful thirst. Paddling carefully into the swamp, I face-off with a 50 foot granite cliff swinging into view on my left. Scanning in a circle around my boat I spot where the portage trail picks up — on my right hidden in a copse of trees with an embankment that descends into a bog. No choice.

Unloading quickly, I sling the army duffel with my food barrel and a couple of empty water bottles and set out to scout what I’m in for. Watching my footing and gauging my coordination, the forest trail descends to the bog and a dilapidated corduroy patchwork of logs. Thin ice is mixed with boggy, puddles. One wrong step sinks my leg in nearly to my hip. Struggling to regain my balance – and boot!—I make my way across the 25 or 30 rods of boggy mess.

The trail eventually rejoins the forest path. From there I find it to be a straight shot on solid ground to Kahshahpiwi. I plot my return trip but only manage to precariously struggle across with my canoe to the woods before setting it down on the forest floor. I’m completely knackered. What to do next? Continue on with boat or go back from the portage pack?

I make the difficult decision to abandon my canoe for now in favor of retrieving my portage pack. It contains the tent, water filter, sleeping bag and spare clothes. Food is already at the other end. Portage pack it is — so that I can begin filtering water and set up camp. I tell myself that this most likely means an emergency bivvy on the portage trail near the put-in. It’s a drastic step but I’m running out of both daylight and energy to safely continue. It’s my best and only option and I move with renewed vigor moving this last heavy load from take-out to the end of the trail and the lake.

Finding a cramped patch of the woods up-trail from the lake put-in, I put together a quick, dehydrated soup and sip several liters of newly-filtered water to rehydrate myself. I’ve slipped on a pile sweater, wool hat and I’m feeling better. The light is almost gone but I decide to trudge back to my boat in the woods in a last ditch effort to at least salvage my fishing gear and lighten the canoe for tomorrow’s first carry by stripping out the portable seat and paddles. As a stroll back through the woods, I’m feeling renewed and arrive back at my abandoned load quicker than anticipated. Throwing caution to the wind, I hoist the canoe onto my shoulders and I’m walking briskly back over up the trail. In what seems like a few short minutes, I’m triumphantly back at my makeshift camp just as darkness descends. Tucking away loose lends, I dive into my tent, broken, exhausted but happy to be reunited with all gear and canoe. I start rethinking my planned route pouring over my maps and listening to the changing weather on my radio. With triple-portages in my future as the only viable alternative and a day-short on my plan, I must cut the route short, forego Agnes on this trip and the Meadows portages in favor of a loop out McNiece, Walshe, Yum, and Grey back to North Bay, Burke and Bayley – all before the winds hit the forecasted 22mph gusts on Wednesday. Sleep finally overtakes me as temperatures drop into the 30s, the lake calms, and the loons call.

May 4th (Day 3): Rethinking possible.

Morning dawns early in canoe country. Under bright sun, I hasten through camp chores and a quick breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and coffee before packing up my makeshift camp. I’m back on the water at about 8:30AM, paddling past high granite cliffs on the western shores and heading north on Kahshahpiwi to scout out the McNiece portage. There is fire tower on the western shore about midway up the lake that catches my eye. I’m thinking that I’m imagining it but it’s a very distinct structure standing a lonely sentinel duty over this elongated gem of water. To the east about a half hour north of the put-in I find the little bay that guards my portage. Snow and ice melt water drains into the lake reminding me that winter has not been long gone from this country.

Ten steps up the portage, the canoe is already zapping the strength in my legs. I begin to wonder if I’ll have the stamina to get over these portages. The trail climbs then levels off in the woods before entering a rocky, exposed beaver pond with yellowed, dry grass that captures and intensifies the sun like a giant solar reflector. I’ve gone from shivering at the lake’s edge to squinting and sweating profusely. A 4-inch poplar is laying at exactly canoe-height across the trail and I wearily set the canoe down to pull it underneath, sliding it on the grass. The rest of the trail descends to the heat-bake of the swamp before rejoining a burned out forest that I must climb to reach. I have to set the boat down because I can’t continue. Instead, I stumble forward with my food barrel to scout the rest of the trail. I’m greeted by four 16 inch pines, laying across my path and must climb them or slide over them to keep going. The portage crews obviously have not been through this area yet and this will be a challenging carry. The trail, a total of 165 rods finally climbs then descends this tree-strewn hill with a winding path that snakes its way down to a boulder- strewn shoreline that meets McNiece lake. Struggling to return for my two remaining loads, this portage takes me three hours to complete. I check the time. It’s already noon. Eating a quick snack and guzzling water, I realize that the day is half gone and this is not going the way I want it to.

I hardly notice the beauty of the old growth pines on McNiece and Shaun Walshe lakes as I paddle and portage the next two trails which are short and fairly flat. What I remember is that on the last of these two, a stiff wind catches the canoe as I hoist it over head, taking us both over. I go down, banging my left knee hard. Ouch. Later I would discover that my knee has turned purple from upper shin to lower thigh but for now I’m just annoyed at my clumsiness.

Reaching Yum Yum in mid-afternoon, I opt for an extended lunch break, nap and filter a few more liters of water. I’m out of the wind now and the heat of the day is building again. I think it’s in the 70s but I’m too tired now to check. After about a one-hour break, I start out again with a new plan. Most would choose the 96 rod portage from Yum Yum to Grey, my final destination. Not able to even contemplate a carry that long, I opt for two shorter as the capstone to my day: a 20 rod trail to Amion Lake, then a 50 rod flat trail to Grey. This plan goes smoothly and by 5 I’m paddling Grey Lake and scouting potential campsites on this long finger lake dotted with islands and quiet small secluded bays.

Finding a seldom-used location with a flat, pine-needled floor and an abandoned fire ring on a granite-outcropping, I get a few camp chores out of the way, pitch the tent and settle in for the night. Tomorrow will be easier. I count off: 126, 60, 65, maybe 20-or-so rod portages, two beaver lift-overs, retracing my steps through North Bay, Burke, Bayley Bay, and Prairie Portage to meet my tow the next day. So far so good. Now sleep, rest & recovery is key. Tomorrow I could be out and I’m honestly looking forward to ending the ordeal.

May 5th (Day 4): Grey Morning

It’s Tuesday. I’m on Grey Lake with mist rising after a cold dawn. Beauty surrounds. I am enveloped in the stillness. Flat water. Bright sunshine reflects off the water. Making a quick breakfast, I forgo coffee and load the boat quickly Time to get moving. Early is the key word for the day.

The portages come and go with little to no difficulty as I laid them out for myself the night before. The first one out of Grey is a much gentler 125 rod portage with an entry well camouflaged behind the island in front of my makeshift campsite. It undulates gently terminating in a wooded, rocky put in that is not difficult to navigate. The next couple of portages are half this length with few blowdown trees, less rocks and little to no swamp or bog to navigate. I soon find myself on the No Name lake that led me to Isabella on the first day. My portage back out is now retracing my steps in the opposite direction: South.

Lunch break is again on the northernmost campsite on North Bay at the outlet from the Isabella Creek and I’m happy to be back. Winds are still light at this point and I rest, break out lunch sandwiches, fruit, nuts and chocolate while I filter enough water for the rest of the day’s journey and consider my progress. The trapper’s abandoned beaver traps are exactly where I first found them and I’m feeling good.

3 Traps at northern site on North Bay

3 Traps at northern site on North Bay

It feels like I’ve come home. An hour and half later, just after 1PM, I push southward on North Bay. The wind has picked up to 5 to 10mph judging by the size of the rollers and I have to work hard to get across the bay. An hour and a half later finds me pulling hard to enter the narrow inlet and the portages that will lead down to Burke. The shallow marshy stream that leads to Burke makes me work hard to vigorously pole the boat forward to arrive at windy Burke Lake. It’s late afternoon now. I could just curl up on this last portage and sleep for a couple of hours but I’ve come too far and I’m determined to at least reach Bayley before day’s end, even if it’s too windy to cross. Once out on the lake, I find the winds abating and the trip down the lake is mostly just a long paddle, not a fight against the wind.

Navigating by compass, I find myself landing on the sandy beach take-out that is my gateway to Bayley Bay of expansive, picturesque Basswood. I had forgotten how flat and unobstructed this portage was and I delight in how quickly I’m able to move my loads across to the other side. I’ve made it! But wait – where’s the wind on the Bayley-side? No wind! I take a quick break, load the boat and push off not wanting to waste the opportunity as Bayley as a nasty reputation for whipping up some “rock-and-rollers”. It’s 7PM. Plenty of light. I move out and push hard. Two hours of paddling by compass I make the top of Inlet Bay. Round the peninsula and heading south I can just make out what looks like a distant light in the ranger cabin on the Quetico park side of Prairie Portage. This beacon seems to call me home. “The maintenance crew must be in early this year”, I note and I pull harder on my double-blade paddle.

As I approach Prairie Portage, darkness is descending. It must be close to 9PM. I find one maintenance worker on the dock loading a boat. He’s startled to see a paddler out there in the late evening as I push hard to meet him. He ignores me and goes back up to cabin. As I land finally around 10PM, tired, thirsty and exhausted, I decide that a bivvy on this beach is out of the question and wearily drag my boat and gear “up top” to the drop off. Looking around quickly I remember that at least two flat tent sites exist near this take out to catch the odd, weary traveler. I set up tent, tie off my canoe in the trees and crawl in exhausted again, but happy. I’ve made it! Tomorrow will be tow-time.

May 6th (Day 5): Fly-outs and Chance Meetings

Morning light filters into the tent.

Prairie Portage looking to the US-side

Prairie Portage looking to the US-side

Prairie Portage looking east

Prairie Portage looking east

Crawling out and strolling back down to the ranger cabins I am treated to the site of the maintenance crew twin otter taxiing and taking off to ferry the crew to another cabin in the direction of Cache. I’m out a day or two early and there is no rush. I lazily pack up and send a message to the outfitter to get a tow out. No answer. Weighing my options of whether to begin a long paddle out to Moose Lake, I stroll around the site and find a green tow boat across from me on the American side. My ride out has arrived! Loading up, I chat with Bob who tells me that he’s up here to tow another group of USFS wardens. I found out that he never received any of my messages. I’m lucky once again on this trip. The ride home is uneventful until we hit the predicted winds on Moose. The boat bucks as it hits the rollers but has little difficulty landing at the docks and its designed berth. I’m home. A feeling of relief rolls over me as a light rain begins to fall.

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The Short Solo: Wood Lake, September 19-21, 2014

Introduction

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.

Wood Lake, BWCA Parking Lot and Portage by TMI. All rights reserved

  Wood Lake, BWCA Parking Lot and Portage by TMI. All rights reserved

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.

Wooden bridge on 180-rod portage into Wood. By TMI, all rights reserved

Wooden bridge on 180-rod portage into Wood. By TMI, all rights reserved

 

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.

Western shore of Wood Lake bivvy site. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Western shore of Wood Lake bivvy site. By TMI. All rights reserved.

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:

The Pike and Walleye from Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

The Pike and Walleye from Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Shorelunch of Pike and Walleye on Wood. By TMI. All rights reserved

Shorelunch of Pike and Walleye on Wood. By TMI. All rights reserved

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:

Rugged shoreline in the southern half of   Wood Lake. By TMI all rights reserved.

Rugged shoreline in the southern half of Wood Lake. By TMI all rights reserved.

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:

The Camp 1151 on Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

The Camp 1151 on Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Site setup on Camp 1151 Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Site setup on Camp 1151 Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Here also is a bear-hanging rope   technique that I was (and still am perfecting) with sailing block pulleys:

Bear Rope Hanging technique. By TMI. All rights reserved

Bear Rope Hanging technique. By TMI. All rights reserved

Triple Pulley technique. Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Triple Pulley technique. Wood Lake. By TMI. All rights reserved.

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.

Reflection on Wood Lake. by TMI. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Wood Lake. by TMI. All rights reserved.

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:

Paddling through swamp to Wood Lake Takeout. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Paddling through swamp to Wood Lake Takeout. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Wood Lake Portage to Parking Lot. By TMI. All rights reserved.

Wood Lake Portage to Parking Lot. By TMI. All rights reserved.

 

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:

 

 

Put out your campfire. Cold-to-the-touch. By TMI. All rights reserved

Put out your campfire. Cold-to-the-touch. By TMI. All rights reserved

 

 

 

End of Summer Stillness: Horse Lake on Labor Day, August 30-Sept 1, 2014

Introduction: Our last family paddle of the year was to enter Mudro Lake via pretty, winding Picket creek where moose sightings are not uncommon. With short paddles through a lovely chain of 3 lakes and relatively short, easy-to-moderate portages, our intention was to make beautiful Horse Lake and base-camp for a couple nights before beginning the familiar autumnal grind of school, work and urban life.

26 rod Put-in at Mudro onto Picket Creek

26 rod Put-in at Mudro onto Picket Creek

Day 1: August 30th The first day is really never the day that we put in. The packing starts earlier in the week with gear being pulled from every corner, food lists drawn up and gathering stove parts and kitchen utensils for the excursion. Stuff sacks are then crammed with clothes, equipment and “stuff” before loading everything into our car and driving off. On Friday, we finally left the urban environs at about midday under partly cloudy skies to head north from Minneapolis. Arriving in Ely around dinner time, we picked up our permit at VNO and headed up the Echo Trail to bed down at the lovely, secluded NFS Fenske Lake campground before nightfall. Next morning a brief spit of rain rolled through but we soldiered on with breakfast and packing. Finally around 10AM we were ready for the trek by car up the forest service gravel road which starts out as Grassy Lake road just north of Fenske.

Mud and Poling. The put-in at Mudro is typically an easy affair even though Picket creek rarely has sufficient water levels to float a canoe from the parking lot. The trail is only a 26-rod flat, sand-and-dirt trail that is well used, terminating at a sandy beach on the creek. We soon encountered the typically low water levels on Picket Creek, dodging exposed rocks and then poling our way to a well-developed beaver dam and our first lift-over. Boot-sucking mud awaited our first liftover as we unloaded our boat and slipped and slid over the wall of pointed sticks, mud, and twigs. Some of us went in up to our knees!  Another 20 minutes of paddling, poling and rock-dodging allowed us to reach the entrance to Mudro Lake but only after lining our boat through two sections of, rocky, necked-down stream with large exposed boulders. The beaver had done its work well–only last fall the creek entry was a piece of cake taking only about 20 minutes. This time we spent the better part of an hour navigating Picket creek before actually paddling into Mudro Lake.

Finally Paddling.  Despite its popularity and heavy use, Mudro Lake has become one of my favorite little lakes with high forested ridges and rocky shorelines. Running west-to-east, we made good time paddling the 20 or 30 minutes across this small lake. There was just a hint of fall colors peeking out as evidenced by the the pale yellow birch and a red maple or two dotting shorelines. We landed and unloaded at the east-end of the lake to cross the 85-rod portage, our first of the day. This portage starts out fairly smooth and flat for the first 10 rods or so, then climbs gently to a flat trail that then descends steeply over a rocky, slippery trail for remaining 50 or 60 rods finally dropping down about 65 feet in elevation to the finger-like Sandpit Lake. This lake offers a bifurcating route option at the east-end of the lake. A southeastern exit will take you down a constricted stream and two short portages to Jackfish Bay of expansive Basswood lake. Our route was the northeastern trail consisting of a 160-rod trail to Tin Can Mike Lake. This flat trail is a former rail line, a vestige of the old logging area. With it’s flat, relatively dry walk, the trail ends in a nicely constructed boardwalk for the final 20 or 30 rods that delivers you to a smooth rock outcropping and a sandy put-in. The portage into Tin Can is quite possibly the easiest 1/2 mile portage I’ve ever walked. Our route then swung north on Tin Can Mike, the third pretty lake in the chain that leads to Horse Lake. Two families were already encamped as we paddled by, one on the west shore on a rocky outcropping in what looked like a wonderful site and the other on the eastern shoreline, nestled in the woods. At the northern end of the lake, we located our last portage of the day, a gently-rising and then descending 90-rod entry into picturesque Horse.

Setting Camp.Our little ones chose our campsite by the Horse River which may have been the first time they have ever opted to paddle farther in search of a base-camp than their parents! We were not disappointed by their choice!

 

Our basecamp on Horse!

Our basecamp on Horse!

  We finished the day setting up camp, preparing dinner, erecting our tent and tarp and hanging our food bags with our new 3-pulley system.

Our dependable silnylon tarp at our Horse basecamp

Our dependable silnylon tarp at our Horse basecamp

Not too be forgotten, my children played as only they know how, making the site their own. One of their favorite past times involves the construction of fairy houses to attract the wee little magical

Leah's fairy house on Horse Lake

Leah’s fairy house on Horse Lake

creatures to enchant our surroundings.

Leah setting a few last twigs on the fairy house

Leah setting a few last twigs on the fairy house

This trip was no different!

   My last hours of dusk and twilight were spent trying out the fishing in front of the campsite although small walleye were all I was rewarded with (and a few lost jigs!). Casting in the dark is a skill I have yet to master but the water was still, the moon was on the rise, and my wife Thea was playing cribbage with our kids which I had just taught them before the trip. I reveled in the perfection of the evening as I packed up my gear in the dark and headed for our tent.

Nice firepits are hard to come by at some sites

Nice firepits are hard to come by at some sites

The 3-pulley bear hang

The 3-pulley bear hang

    Day 2 Highlights: At 4:38 AM the next morning, in the gray of early twilight, I was awakened in the tent by something that I haven’t heard since we all camped together on Lost Bay Island in Voyageur National Park. A wolf pack was howling in perfect call-and-answer in the woods very near our site. They were at once close and far away apparently relocating each other after the night’s hunt in our vicinity of the Horse River. I woke my wife Thea but couldn’t rouse either my son Ethan or daughter Leah who were both sound asleep. We listened breathlessly though for 5 to 10 minutes before it faded. I awoke again about 30 or 40 minutes later to hear a repeat performance by the pack, yipping and yelping as though chasing each other through the forests. Awe-inspiring was the only word that aptly described the experience.

Early Morning Fishing. This was sufficient motivation to string up my lines, grab the boat at 6 AM and slip out in the canoe while the waters were still calm and the morning early. I had read a fair amount of fishing reports and knew the lake contours fairly well so I considered a route up the eastern shoreline trolling hard plastics as search lures in about 10 to 15 feet of water. Walleyes had been holding in shallower waters in most lakes that I had been on this summer and I took a chance that it would still be the case. Northern Horse was quiet and cool and I paddled slowly enjoying the moment. At the far northern end I found the island campsite and the shoreline site directly across, occupied by one group. I made a lazy circuit behind the island and headed south back home empty handed to this point. Rounding the island my line of my deep crankbait went tight and I eventually landed a 25 1/2 inch pike. Paddling a bit further around the island heading again for the eastern shoreline I reeled in a small walleye that was probably around 6-8 inches. I released him to grow bigger for next year and paddled happily home, assured of fillets for dinner that evening!

Arriving back in camp, my family was slowly stirring. We dropped the food bags from their perch and prepped a huge feast of bacon, eggs, cheese and wrapped tortillas. A 1.5 Litter carafe of coffee hit the spot for the adults and we began planning our day’s excursion before the winds could come up.

Beached. Two hours later we were finally on the water paddling back south past the Horse River to the peninsula beach site that had been decommissioned some time ago by the USFS. It was a lovely spot and lunched, our little ones played in the sand and we explored the “island” as the spot had that secluded feeling that the place was all to our own.

Crossed Swords on Horse Lake beach site

Crossed Swords on Horse Lake beach site

 

Ethan and Leah on Horse  Lake sandy beach

Ethan and Leah on Horse Lake sandy beach

With the wind picking up a bit and needed to reload our water bladders for filtering, Thea and I decided to head straight across the lake to the western shore where a deep 30 foot hole was supposed to exist and the promise of some good jigging. As we paddled across my deep diver hardbait went taught. I tried to reel in but a good wind gust hit us and we swung broadside to the waves and nearly tipped! Abandoning the potential catch we paddled furiously for the leeward side of an island and sanctity. Dark and grey clouds were now building around the lake particularly from the south. Time to head back to pick up our kids, pack and head back to camp. Rain was likely on the way.

Fishing and Full moon poetry. Rain held off and we set about tying down and buttoning up camp in case of a later deluge. Dinner consisted of our stash of fresh vegetables, dip, macaroni and cheese and pike fillets in cornbread meal grilled on our newest acquisition — a square griddle. Very tasty. My daughter has been deeply entranced by her first school project: a moon journal. After dinner she sat on a rocky outcropping and wrote a poem to the moon as it slowly rose in a clear blue twilight:

The Beautiful moon

why Do you shine so Bright?

you are amazing.

Yellow moon

Glowing over me

We capped the evening with a bit of topwater fishing in the bay south of our site. Leah was getting quite proficient with a 3 inch bullfrog popper when…a large strike hit her lure! …But the fish disappeared into the depths and we ran out time to coax it back before night fell. Time to brush teeth. Read a story. Lights out. Tomorrow would be packing-n-moving day.

View south from eastern shore above Horse River

View south from eastern shore above Horse River

Day 3: Pack-Up and travel day in the rain and sunshine. Early morning meant a quick round of coffee for the adults, pop-tarts and pancakes topped with maple syrup. My own concoction was a pancake with crushed walnuts, yoghurt, raisins and chopped apples. A feast! Packing quickly in our family means getting away in 2 hours. We made our estimate, pushing away under a misty, grey sky heading south. Sheets of light rain greeted our arrival back at the first portage from Horse into Tin Can Mike. The 90-rod trudge was fairly easy and sunshine greeted us on the other side. A quick put-in and we were greeted by a flotilla of 6 canoes heading in our direction. Dodging the “newcomers” we made for the southern end of the lake and our flat, 160-rodder. A trio of loons guided us and my daughter perfected her loon calls….and answers :). At the end of the next portage, another tandem of gentlemen greeted us as they were heading into Basswood Falls for a week-long adventure. Exchanging news in the time-honored fashion, we loaded and shoved off paddling vigorously for our final test, the 85-rod uphill climb that would lead us to Mudro and home!

Last Portage. That last portage is muddy on this side of Sandpit and the climb back up the hill is a thigh-burner but we made it with energy to spare…and were greeted by….yes….another group of 4 paddlers making for Horse. It’s definitely time to go home! We paused once on Mudro, gliding silently as we pointed out to the kids to “snapshot” this lake into their memories for retrieval during the upcoming long winter nights. Then, with heavy sighs, we paddled into Picket creek to do battle with the rocks, the poling through swamp grass and low water ( I had to get out to lighten the canoe at one point) and then the heave ho over the new beaver dam construction. A few more minutes of struggle afterwards and we landed on the beach at the take-out, exhausted but glad to be back. A quick pack-up of the car and loading of the canoe was needed as the heavens opened again on us before we began the long return journey home. Pausing briefly at the intersection of the Echo Trail and Grassy Lake Rd. we inhaled the stillness one last time, then turned and headed south. Heading home.

A First Glimpse of Algonquin: The Way to Radiant Lake, July 30, 2014

Something Different

Algonquin is the third largest provincial park in Ontario and a mecca for paddlers from southern Ontario and many others. Our own journey was intended as a half-way meeting place for our my brother- and sister-in-law and their two teenage kids from Connecticut.

 

 

It was secretly my excuse to explore this beautiful park of forested lakes, pool-and-drop rivers and rugged portages. My wife Thea and I along with our two kids, Ethan and Leah aged 12 and 10 eagerly anticipated our rendezvous.

Day 1: On the Road – Monday July 28, 2014

The first day of any trip combines several months of planning and a few frantic days of packing back in Minneapolis before heading east. My son Ethan and daughter Leah were buried in the backseat of my wife’s Prius as we set out on a sunny day from our home. The Wenonah Champlain was precariously balanced on the roof rack and we had crammed the back compartments with portage packs and camping gear. A long hot drive ended for us in Sault-Sainte Marie on the US side to break the journey. The next morning we carried on with our final stopover in Mattawa. This is a lovely, historic little mountain town in mountainous northeastern Ontario. Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers, town is part of the old voyageur history on the doorstep of the Algonquin Park. I doubt this area has changed much since Etienne Brulé and Samuel de Champlain visited as the first Europeans to pass through. We stayed at Le Voyageur Inn, a two-story structure with an interesting bit of character and great food. The town had just survived its annual Voyageur Days when we arrived. The dented-in plaster drywall in the breakfast nook area retained some hints of the level of revelry the night before.

Day 2 – Brent Campground – Tuesday July 29, 2014

All trips at this northern entrance to the park begin at Cedar Lake, access point 27. We stopped to pick up our backcountry camping permits and reservations for the Brent Campground—where we would stay tonight – from two very pleasant rangers at the ranger station. The drive down to the lake is on a well-graded scenic gravel road with evidence of ongoing logging operations on lands outside of Algonquin. In a hurry to find and set up our camp, we didn’t stop to view the meteor crater but it is well worth the visit if you have time. If you are not getting on the water the first day of your trip out onto Cedar Lake, then Brent Campground is a comfortable place to spend the night.

Upon arrival, we set up tents, exploded our gear onto our site and began organizing everything. My in-laws arrived a few hours after us to great cheers. Later we all strolled down the Algonquin Outfitters Brent Store in the hamlet of Brent to discuss our route, canoe and gear arrangements with the knowledgeable and friendly staff in the store.

Day 3 – Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – Wednesday July 30, 2014

We were in trouble and we knew it. Or at least I knew it. Overcast skies in the morning with predicted rain for later that day. With gear still spread over the grass in our group site, it took us most of the morning to get organized and head down to the outfitters to pick up our boats. Traveling with kids means buying souvenirs pre-trip and keeping lunches and snacks handy. Your motto should always be “you never know”. Finally trucking our gear down to the dock where we would stage our loading operations, the sky let loose and a steady downpour ensued. A true midsummer soaker was upon us. I staggered back into the outfitters to return one last bit of miscellaneous unneeded gear before departing. Water was dripping in rivulets off of my hat and down the back of my neck. My rain gear was soggy. One of the gentleman behind the counter glanced up, without missing a beat remarked “how was your trip?” We were off to memorable start.

The rain stopped but dark clouds were high overhead obscuring any chance of sun and an ominous squall of white was rolling in from the northeast end of the lake. We shoved off and began our paddle of a three-boat flotilla. Halfway across we were hit again — the skies opened and drenched us. Turning my boat around I yelled to the others “Welcome to Algonquin!”. Luckily spirits were high and the kids were having a lot of fun watching the parents struggle under the soaking. Constant reminders were given to ‘paddle!’

This was going to be an epic day.

Landing at the sandy portage to the Petawawa River, our party slowly organized itself as loads were carried across while bypassing the rapids that roared to our right. It’s not a bad carry though. At 985 meters (199 rods), the path begins in a wide open grove of towering pines and is flat for about the first third. Gradually ascending a ridge the trail crests and then gently descends to a rocky put-in on the Petawawa.

Almost 200 rod portage from Cedar to Petawawa ends at this rocky steep put-in

Almost 200 rod portage from Cedar to Petawawa ends at this rocky steep put-in

With the horror of the first portage written across everyone’s face, we took an impromptu lunch break before moving on. I noted the fatigue on everyone’s face noting their dawning recognition of what I had gotten all of them into.

Rain was now coming intermittently in sheets, drizzle or downpours as we moved out onto the river. Letting up a bit, we reached the second 685 meter-portage (147 rods). This mostly flat trail bypasses a set of rapids and winds through picturesque forest with stands of maples, beech and conifers before passing a campsite and dropping down to the water below a cascade. We were picking up speed now and launched towards our next and last portage, a 160-rod railroad bed that would take us onto the final stretch of the Petawawa and finally to Radiant Lake, our destination. You need to know one thing coming in this direction, the takeout on the final portage is a steep, nearly impossible goat-scramble up a craggy, crumbling chasm of rock about 15 meters or 45 to 50 feet up. Vertical might be a more apt description.

Once up on the railroad bed it’s a straight walk down the gravel railroad bed the stick-and-rock marker that signals that the trail turns off the left the gravel road. The path at this point dives back downhill into the forest before descending to the sandy put-in. You’re bypassing the Devil’s Chute Rapids, a long series of cascades formed as the river descends on its way to Radiant Lake. We were now on the final stretch of our exhausting day.

We completed the short easy paddle down the river in about a half hour turning south as we exited onto the lake. Turning right (south) we easily located a well-used but spacious campsite on a knobby outcropping with a good clearing, established fire ring and plenty of room for our 3 tents.

Our campsite on Radiant

Our campsite on Radiant

Day 4: Layover – July 31, 2014

Morning brought fog and mists over the lake. Breakfast was hardy eggs, bacon, oatmeal washed down with juice or strong coffee. Despite motor traffic on this lake, I like Radiant for its calm demeanor. Friendly lake-dwellers motored past us occasionally as they headed to one of the few permanent cabins on this lake.

Silhouette on Radiant

Silhouette on Radiant

This seemed to comfort everyone and ease that initial sense of wilderness that can be overwhelming to some, particularly those who are newer to this experience. This day was dedicated to sorting out and drying everything that had received a good soaking the day before.

Getting breakfast going

Getting breakfast going

At the end of the day, my wife Thea and I headed up the Petawawa to see if I could land fish for the evening meal. A bit of trolling with a rap husky jerk landed a couple smallmouth (several shook off my line as they rose to the surface) and one eater-sized walleye. The day was a success!

Father-daughter moment

Father-daughter moment

 Day 5: Shoal and Bass – August 1, 2014

It was time to venture further out of camp and explore. Shoal Lake was the destination. We were all feeling a bit more adventurous and decided to use our last day to get out and stretch those paddling muscles. I tied on a search lure and we set out from our site heading north/northwest up the inlet to Shoal. Rounding a point in overcast skies threatening rain my line gave a tug and the reel whined as the drag kicked in. Strike! Several minutes later the line slackened and the lure returned to the surface leaving no truce or clue what I had nearly set into. It was a portent of things to come.

Lilypads on inlet to Shoal

Lilypads on inlet to Shoal

Water lilies on a log, Shoal Lake

Water lilies on a log, Shoal Lake

The bay that leads to Shoal is a weedy shallow inlet covered in a carpet of reed grass and lily pads. The portage around a shallow, short stretch of rock strewn rapids is perhaps 15 meters (5 rods) and we simply lifted our canoes over it. The first half of Shoal is more of the same carpeted shallow waters however closer the cascades that tumble in from X lake on the northern side, the lake deepens to perhaps 10 to 20 feet home to a healthy, aggressive and wily bass. There is a fairly decent campsite near the cascades, a bit sloping for more than 2 tents to accommodate but nestled under tall pine and a perfect setting, with the tranquility of the rushing water to contemplate the world – or eat lunch! Which was what we did.

Picnic lunch on Shoal

Picnic lunch on Shoal

I tried my hand at fishing around the cascades as others took a hike over the short 25 or so rod portage to view bucolic Clamshell Lake. My own battles below with the bass resulted in an 0-6 record. Many were hooked, several were set, but shook my barbless hook each and ever time with a well-timed leap. Even one nice dark brownback brought to canoe-side managed to escampe. Oh well, next time.

You never forget your first privy.

You never forget your first privy.

Day 6: August 2, 2014

Paddling-out proved far less of an adventure given everyone’s motivation to go. Everyone awoke early around 7AM. Breakfast was everything still left over save few snacks: oatmeal, pancakes, eggs, cheese, crackers, Nutella and bread, yoghurts and coffee or juice. Packing was accomplished in record time for our little party and we were on the water by 9AM.

Going home! Up the Petawawa to the railroad portage

Going home! Up the Petawawa to the railroad portage

Well-organized and energetic, we attacked the 160 rod railroad portage, loaded again, pushed off and made for the 141 rod portage. Finding refuse at the put-in campsite we packed up fire proof gloves, paper plates, clothesline and miscellaneous bits of papers and wrappers as we trudged down the trail. Here I thought of brilliant idea to shorten everyone’s portage and perhaps regain some of my backwoodsman aura that had been tarnished on the trip in: the short-cut. About 20 rods or so before you reach the put-in on the river, their is a high water put-in next to a small feeder stream that rejoins the rapids further down river. Putting in here saves that last bit of carry and gets you on the river quicker but a large tree is downed a maneuvering around it can be tricky – as we learned!

Back on the last stretch of the Petawawa, we paddled to our last, long rocky portage and straggled over it. After a well-deserved break and last lunch at the pine grove next to the put-in, we were off and making the long paddle across Cedar back to the town of Brent. As a result of my own navigational blunder I had our canoes heading into the southwest bay off of the portage. The lead canoe realized my mistake and turned north just in time. Now we were spread across the lake separated by 10 to 20 minutes of paddling. I never realized how long this lake was coming in but going out it seemed to stretch on forever. At one point we picked up our daughter in mid-lake from my brother-in-law Mike’s canoe and she happily clambered onto a portage pack and promptly fell asleep for the rest of our long pull homewards. Dry land never felt so good after we arrived and we did our best to indulge in all the goodies that the Brent Store had to offer!

Next day was tearful goodbyes and rolling out on the road. Tim Horton’s was our treat to salve the pain of parting from good friends and family.

 

Hmmm….contemplating the next trip?

Hmm...more cheese?...nutella?..or just go fishing?

Hmm…more cheese?…nutella?..or just go fishing?

 

Sawbill To Cherokee and Back Again, July 4, 2014

Family Canoe Adventure: Sawbill to Cherokee and Back Again
Dates: July 2nd – 5th, 2014
Portages: 5
Length: 4 days
Canoe/Gear: Wenonah Champlain
Lakes: Sawbill, Ada, Skoop, Cherokee

 

Trip Introduction:

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

Fairy Houses on Cherokee: Something to look forward to

Fairy Houses on Cherokee: Something to look forward to

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.

Premonitions on Cherokee

Premonitions on Cherokee

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.

View west from our Cherokee camp

View west from our Cherokee camp

Site on Cherokee

Site on Cherokee

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.

Indispensable Tarp on Rainy Cherokee

Indispensable Tarp on Rainy Cherokee

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.

Southwestern bay, Cherokee Lake

Southwestern bay, Cherokee Lake

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.

Island southern end, Cherokee Lake

Island southern end, Cherokee Lake

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.

The Rare Moment Out of the Tent, Cherokee

The Rare Moment Out of the Tent, Cherokee

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

Paddlers heading for Cherokee Creek

Paddlers heading for Cherokee Creek

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.

 

Serenity: Little Indian Sioux River North to Loon Lake, May 23, 2014

Our first family trip of the year over Memorial Day to Loon Lake seemed like the perfect adventure to kickoff what would become a wonderful summer of backwoods adventures. Loon provides access to the Canadian border, expansive Lac La Croix and Crooked Lake further southwest. It also provides fertile boundary lake fishing excursions on both sides of the international border. Loon has nestled bays and dotted islands that offer a deep serenity as the sun sets and waters calm for wildlife viewing, fishing and peacefulness reminding you must slow down and experience nature.

Canoe: Wenonah Champlain
Portages: 3 or 4 (longest 120 rods)
Total Miles: 12-16 miles round trip

Day 1: Trip to Lake Jeannette campground
We had a late start on Thursday evening from Minneapolis swinging by to pick up my wife Althea, finishing up her teaching day around 4:30PM. We rolled into Ely, MN about 4 ½ hours later as dusk was descending, picked up our permit at Voyageur North Outfitters and began climbing the Echo Trail. It was pitch black and near midnight as we found our site at quiet, secluded the USFS campground on Lake Jeannette. Our adventure was just beginning.

Ready to go to the put-in from Jennette

Ready to go to the put-in from Jennette

 

Lake Jennings campground boat ramp for a day's outing

Lake Jennings campground boat ramp for a day’s outing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2: Early Rise on Friday
Friday dawned bright and sunny with little to no winds. I hustled out of the tent to pull together a breakfast of oatmeal, pop-tarts, cereal, fruit, juice for our kids, Ethan and Leah and strong, steaming pot of black coffee for the adults. Packing and repacking our gear, we drove up to the LIS parking lot and began struggling all of our gear and the boat down the portage trail at the parking lot to the put-in at the base of the falls of Little Indian Sioux. High water greeted us as we shoved off and immediately stuck our boat fast on a submerged boulder that we would have otherwise seen if not for the turbid, brown rapids. Not a good start to the trip and it took some work to free ourselves and continue paddling down the river.

Neither Elm portage (35 rods) on the way to the twin Pauness lakes nor the 28 rod portage from Upper to Lower Pauness posed any particular difficulty. Both of our kids quickly shouldered their packs filled with sleeping bag, clothes and their day lunches over each trail noting wolf scat and fresh prints on the last portage into Lower Pauness. A quick snack then paddle and we landed at Devil’s Cascade portage (120 rods) for the climb to the top and steep descent to bypass the impress deep canyon and rapids below. We stopped at the summit on our last carry to admire the view and enjoy a picnic lunch before moving on.

Devil's cascade portage is done!

Devil’s cascade portage is done!

Several groups passed us on their way out. They were just completing an ambitious route from Loon looping back to the east and then south by southwest to the river after a successful walleye-fishing trip. We had high hopes for a 5-star campsite as we met another father-son tandem heading out. We circled the lake stopping at several sites with wide, flat grassy spaces for tents and well-developed fire rings but we couldn’t come to a consensus on which site to choose. On a good 4-star site situated on a peninsula looking south towards the river, we agreed to return to a high-cliff site across the bay. The sun was beginning to set. I hastily string up my rod and tied on a deep-diving Rapala as my wife and kids clambered into the canoe. My efforts were rewarded with two 20” northern pike for dinner that evening over our well-tended-fire.

Our campsite overlooking Loon from a high vantage point towards Canada

Our campsite overlooking Loon from a high vantage point towards Canada

Day 3: Ledge Top Paradise.
Isn’t it funny how a campsite can grow on you? This was not my first choice. This spot was situated on a high bluff overlooking Loon Lake and north into Canada. The evening before my son, Ethan was inexplicably drawn to it for some reason. Exhausted from our first day, we had all finally agreed to paddle back to it, eager to set up camp. The take-out was on a sandy beach now flooded with a steep 20 to 25-foot climb up a narrow path to excellent flat sites above with room for several tents. Towering pine and deciduous trees provided shade, great tie-off points for our tarp, bear-hanging rope and water. As I walked the site the next morning while my family slept, I began to appreciate its advantages while drinking in the beauty of the sunrise and the breathtaking view from our ledge-top paradise.

This was to be a leisurely day with no plans except to enjoy ourselves, the lake and maybe explore the area. After breakfast and camp chores we kicked around a couple of options for the day: Beatty portage to the north, an exploratory trip up the Loon River in the direction of Crane or East Loon Lake for fishing. We opted for East Loon with the winds picking up and driving 1-foot rollers across the lake.

East Loon is a quiet secluded lake that is separated from Loon by a shallow pinch of land. I trolled a line through here but by midday I was having little luck. Still hoping for lake trout, walleye or a bass, I kept the line in as we made a pass by several campsites to do our own mental inventory of each. The lunch spot for the day would be a campsite at the far north site at the top of the lake. What are remarkable about East Loon is its steep wooded, granite shorelines on its southern terminus that gradually give way to a northern end characterized shallow bays, swamp and reed grass. I am always amazed at how quickly the topography changes up here even on the same body of water.

Our lunch spot was one of the few dry places but its sloping grade to the waterline made it a less-than-desirable campsite. After a hearty lunch of cheese-and-crackers, sanwhiches, fruit and yoghurts, we had enough energy to fly!

Ethan Jump Loon Lake 53114

Ethan jumps for joy on East Loon, May 2015

It was however perfect if your goal was Slim Lake  the next day. The portage is a short distance down the eastern shoreline from this site.

Our paddle back to our basecamp was a bit more challenging. The wind had picked up, judging from the waves and was pushing 10 mph or so, according to the forecasts I had monitored the night before on my S.A.M.E weather radio.

East Loon campsite below narrows

East Loon campsite below narrows

 

Struggling our way back to the narrows we pulled over at a spacious, pine-needle covered site with a generous clearing and well-developed fire ring for a snack, some fishing and to let the winds abate. Finally agreeing to push on, we reloaded the canoe and shoved off into stiff headwinds. Crossing the bay to the southern shore to get some relief from the wind tunnel, I felt a tug on my line and reeled in a 12 inch pike which I released. Cruising back to our home base, I was rewarded for my persistence with one 22” northern. Disappointed with my lack of luck and skill, I was glad that we would enjoy one more fish dinner before packing up and heading home tomorrow.

That evening our kids played around the campsite, tempted back to the fire only by s’mores and hot chocolate. Watching the sun drop below the horizon we noted the lack of mosquitoes and insects. As the evening settled over us, fish were rising to snap up the meager hatching that were occurring. Tempted to grab my rod and head out, I opted for camp chores and tidying up for the next day’s pack-up. With protestations over teeth brushing and “last bathroom breaks”, my wife and I settled our little ones into the cozy Kelty Salida 4 tent to read stories we had brought along and slip off into a deep slumber.

Day 4: Sunny Day with a Small Surprise
A windless morning of glorious sunshine greeted us when we awoke. Our last breakfast in the backcountry was a feast of banana-cinnamon pancakes topped with maple syrup, scrambled eggs on the side. The last of the bacon was also devoured. No need to save it now. We would need the energy for the portages. A familiar whine startled us as tiny winged-insects fluttered up from the forest floor. Time to leave! After coffee and clean-up, we pushed off about 9:30 with still waters and building sunshine.

Our trip out was uneventful, greeting a few fellow paddlers also working their way towards the exit from Loon lake and the eventual portages. Two hours later after retracing our steps over the three portages we found ourselves at the falls and the last take-out. Happy exhaustion and one more punch of adrenaline carried us and our gear back to the parking lot and our car at midday. We spent an additional hour walking the trail back and forth from the lot to find an errant water bottle, missing glove, a nearly-forgotten paddle and tote bag.

Stowing the last of the camping detritus in our overhead Rocketbox, we clambered into our vehicle bound for cold drinks and hot sandwiches in Ely and back home to Minneapolis. Our summer has begun on a high note.

 

The Unexpected: Ice-Out on Knife, May 10, 2014

Knife Ice-Out Solo Trip
Entry: Moose Lake to Quetico Park
Canoe: Wenonah Champlain
Dates: May 10- 14, 2014

Trip Introduction: A first solo trip up Moose and through Knife Lake into the Man Chain of lakes in Quetico can be a wonderful trip to begin a summer paddling season. Moose lake chain leading north up to Newfound and Sucker are beautiful lakes to experience early in the season as well as Knife. I had never seen the Man Chain of lakes in Quetico. Fellow paddlers’ tales of fishing exploits and 5-star camp sites had enticed me all winter. Tales of inviting, peaceful lakes with wonderful campsites and solitude seemed perfect.

Day 1, May 10th: Heading North
My decision to visit these lovely lakes in the BWCA and Quetico led me to contact Bob at LaTourell’s to book a tow up to Prairie Portage for May 11th. With the optimism that can only be borne from enduring a lengthy winter in anticipation of that first open-water paddle, I packed and headed north, ready for adventure.

Day 2, May 11th: Watching the Ice Melt – Moose Lake
There is a cascading flood of emotion after a long winter where doing activities associated with warmer climes and being outdoors becomes overwhelming. I arrived with those thoughts and feelings at the outfitter just before supper on Saturday with the anticipation on going in, by tow the next morning, early if possible.

Sunset over Moose Lake ice. By TMI. All rights.

Sunset over Moose Lake ice. By TMI. All rights.

The ice was pooling up and connecting into larger puddles when I arrived. Late Spring sun was providing scenic sunsets over the lake and retired to my cabin to sort my gear, study maps, and hope for the best in the morning.

Bunkhouse at LaTourell's: Waiting for Ice Out. TMI. All rights reserved.

Bunkhouse at LaTourell’s: Waiting for Ice Out. TMI. All rights reserved.

 

 

Day 3, May 12th: Punching Through to Knife Portages

My next morning dawned bright and sunny with clear water in the southern end of the lake but ice flows still visible further north. I checked with Bob and realized we would all need some patience to see if today was the day. Finally a little before noon, he started shifting boats and people around and gave me the sign to load my gear at the dock along with my boat. We were finally going up lake! Bob’s crew consisted of a husband-and-wife team (his daughter and son-in-law) who piled into the tow boat in gumboots and heavy jackets after loading my beastly portage pack (I over-packed as usual for my first trip) and carefully strapped my canoe onto the rails above.

We set out for what would be quite the adventure. The plan was to tow me up through Moose through the lovely chain of connecting lakes Newfound and Sucker all the way to Prairie Portage. They were opening up their cabins and operations at the portage on the US-side which gave me the chance to register for what I had hoped would be several nights on the Man Chains in Quetico as part of my shake-out trip.

What we knew was that several strata of popcorn ice sheets lay across Moose Lake, running east-to-west and that we could navigate around and through them to open water clear up to Prairie Portage. Forest Service had flown over the lakes early that morning and relayed the intel so off we went.Punch through ice on moose

What we didn’t know was that 2 large strata of this deteriorating ice had drifted south and were completely blocking our way! My team swung our towboat around the back side of the island (pictured above in middle photo) and we proceeded to punch our way through to the next width of open water. I breathed a sigh of relief but not for long. Blocked by yet another ice flow, our pilot swung the boat around behind an island on the western shore of Moose, hoping to find a passage north. I was beginning to feel like Henry Hudson searching for the great Northwest passage in the services of what would eventually become the Dutch West Indies Company.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to bail out and camp on Moose. We eventually picked, punched, poked and ran our boat through to open water at the northern end of Moose and were soon speeding up the lake to Sucker. As we dodged the pineBW Falls PP-studded islands of Sucker I knew I was on my way to Prairie Portage.

We carefully landed my boat and gear on the Canadian side of Basswood Falls which was roaring from melting Spring flows. I explored the rangers’ station which was still closed, self-registered and soon was off, paddling up narrow channels to Birch lake. More ice thwarted me at a couple of turns and I had to beach on one campsite to get a late breakfast and figure out a strategy but I was soon paddling again in the beautiful warm sunshine, wind-free to my first of 4 portages up the Knife river.

Ice on Birch

Ice on Birch

Finishing my last exhausting carry towards late afternoon, The Knife Portage, I shoved off against a strong current threatening to sweep me back over the rock-strewn rapids and riffle. As I paddled out into Knife Lake, I knew I needed a campsite and water soon to rehydrate. What I saw took my breath away. Out on the horizon a cluster of islands lay ahead surrounded by what appeared to be floating shelves of steely, dark-blue water. But something was wrong as the water did not undulate or stir and then I realized I was gazing out over a completely frozen Knife Lake. Yikes! Fortunately for me, a channel was opened to the one and only island with campsites through a torturous path of white and dark ice flows, studded with popcorn-like shards. Carefully navigating the frigid waters, I landed on Robbins, exhausted, thirsty, and famished. Making camp, I finished camp chores and took some photos before flopping in my tent for an early bed.

I was all alone in the BWCA and I had an entire lake to myself. At least for one night.

Day 4, May 13th: Icebound on Robbins
A gusting wind and blowing rain all night and a pitter-patter on the tent told me to stay inside my sleeping bag for a while. A rainy day and I was trapped by ice surrounding my island camp. I snoozed for an extra hour or two, woke, read, snooze more and tried to let my body recover from the first day. By mid-afternoon I finally braved the elements by climbing out of my tent.

The wind had partially blown the ice from in front of my site and I could begin to make out a path back down river to the portage. Making a quick pot of coffee, I sipped the hot elixir and nibbled some breakfast at 3 in the afternoon while monitoring ice movements out on the lake. Around 5 or so, another group of two tandems paddled up from the portage and grabbed the other site on the island. I could hear their laboring and clanking of paddles as the rain had picked up again.

I strung up a line and cast a few times off the island to test my luck but the dark water was too frigid for any fish to be active. Gathering my maps and checking my canoe and gear, I dove back into my tent for an early bedtime. Tomorrow might be better.

Day 5, May 14th: Windbound in Quetico
Too restless to remain, I packed up after breakfast this morning. Paddling away I was determined to make at least Crawford so that I could loop out through Quetico on my way home to Moose and my tow. I had given up on the Man Chain and Knife as I had lost any time advantage that I had gained. Noting the small patches of ice and snow in the bays, I found and tackled the portage to Crawford but checking my gear I realized that I was missing my MSR water filter bladder! I made this discovery after I landed, unpacked my boat and was ready to start loading up.

Forty-five hard-fought minutes later I was again back at my campsite to pick up the water bladder right where I had left it when I loaded my canoe. Now the rain had begun and I was getting cold. I launched but was quickly driven to the rocky shoreline on the island, only a few hundred yards up from where I had just departed. Cold driving rain and a bit of sleet.

Finally regaining the portage, I lugged first boat and then gear over the un-cleared portage which scales a 15ft rock face about 10 rods in and then descends down a muddy slope with plenty of bent poplars to hang up your canoe and grab at your pack. Arriving at Crawford around 11AM, the wind was now cranking in full force and piling up at my end of the lake. Putting in was a challenge and I soon found myself grabbing branches, hand over hand pulling myself and the boat forward through 15 – 20 mph winds with 25 – 30 mph gusts. I found the one and maybe only campsite and was able to spread out quite nicely on the pine-needle covered forest floor with towering pines swaying overhead. While I dried out gear, I cast a few times but my efforts yielded little. Sunset was a gorgeous array of reds and pinks and magically at 8PM exactly, the wind machine switched off and the winds skidded to a stop except for the occasional whisper.

Day 6, May 15th: Cold Rain, Snow, Hail, Sleet and Paddle Home
The next morning I rose around 5:30, fixed a cold breakfast and immediately packed and loaded to launch by 7AM. The winds had started to chug to life around 4:30AM that morning but I couldn’t climb out until later. Now I need to make a bit of effort to get down this condensed, scenic lake to the portage into Carp for my journey home. Winds posed a bit of problem for my Champlain and I had to trim it with a 50-gal. dry bag of water however I made the portage at the lip of the beaver dam and carried easily over to Carp on a well-used, mostly flat trail into a secluded bay.

Paddling south down Carp was scenic in its own right and the weather seemed to hold as I watched the pewter-grey skies. But my luck ran out as weather broke about mid-morning when I was halfway down the lake. Rain, then sleet, then snow and maybe a bit of hail changeover pelted me. After another hour or so of paddling I made the International Border and the body of water with a portage that wBirch putin next lakeould take me into Birch, heading further west to Indian Portage and the pathway into Moose. Wind was picking up out of the west but not as strong as yesterday. Bucking these headwinds I pushed into Birch staying to the southern shore. Finally close to noon, I spotted the little bay that shelters Indian Portage and I pushed hard to reach it. More paddlers, groups of as many as 8 were heading east into Knife, and it was time to leave.

My tow from LaTourell’s showed up a bit early with another crew to drop off. By 2PM I was loaded and heading south to Moose Lake, a shower, clean clothes and something hot to drink!