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!

BWCA EP23: Mudro-Horse-Fourtown Loop, October 11-14th, 2013

EP23 MUDRO HORSE FOURTOWN loop

Overview: This trip was a last gasp of the summer canoe tripping through an entry point that I had never done.  Mudro (EP23) was enticing for the opportunity to get into both Horse and Fourtown for late season/early fall fishing, pilot a “parallel solo” opportunity with a fellow paddler, as well as a chance to experience a couple of lakes without mosquitoes and hordes of other canoeists!

Image

Day 1: Left Twin Cities at 4AM to meet up with another BWCA forum solo who was looking for one more trip into the same lakes before the season closed out. I arrived in Ely around 8:30 Friday morning and picked up a Le Tigre SR17 from the good folks at Voyageur North outfitters and headed up to the EP at Mudro. Rolling into the parking lot I unloaded and trucked everything down the grassy banks passed a very low-flowing Picket Creek. John, my parallel solo partner arrived shortly after me and we were soon floating down the creek, rock-dodging.

Image

Image

Image

As the sunshine built over us, an eagle or two soared over us on the portage from Mudro to Sandpit. A good omen. With little wind we pushed on with easy paddling to find the well-disguised portage into Tin Can Mike, another short paddle and the quick, easy portage (stepping over the wolf scat) into Horse.

Image

Now the wind was coming up. We set our strategy for campsites and pushed up the west shoreline of Horse passed the river entry to Fourtown portage. Although not thrilled with our options for campsites, we stayed at campsite 1117 on the west shore because the winds had picked up and crossing Horse to the two sites on the opposite shore next to the Horse River was now, not an option.

The camp itself is okay with a  lot of space at the top of gently sloping rock face. The take out is a bit clumsy but if you paddle around to the backside of the site, the protected bay offers a couple of better options. Two tent pads are easily identifiable with a lower one on a grassy surface to the left of the fire pit and a second upper one situated on a half-dirt pack, half rock ledge but definitely pitch-able.

Image

Image

I nestled my solo into the trees behind the upper tent pad in a stand of trees an grass in between a root or two but very comfortable. Tarp pitched in there as well although a bit awkward and tight.

Day 2: Early morning dawned grey and a stiff breeze. Fished the point to the west of the campsite and brought in a couple of 15 to 16 inch pike but nothing much else before breakfast. After a hot breakfast, we triaged our options with winds gusting 10 to 15mph by early morning and whitecaps building out on Horse.  We set out north from our camp for a windy island saddle up the west shore and then a series of back bays for our fishing. Not having much luck initially, the second bay up the west shore from our camp gave us a couple pike, a SM and a small walleye. Not much else seemed to  biting. John however brought in a decent sized pike (probably in the 18-20in range) which was the largest that either of us caught and a respectable SM which kept us entertained and enthusiastic to keep casting for a few more hours.  Rap 11cm brown/gold Husky Jerk, silver #5 Colorado-blade-spinners with black 1/4oz jigs, plastic leeches and fire tiger crank baits seemed to be the preference (although I had a sneaking suspicion that the pike I caught were just desperately hungry and sensed a long winter setting in!). About midafternoon, our own hunger was building and we decided to head back to camp for own hors d’oeuvres and dinners.  Just for fun I set up a deep tail dancer/inline sinker and trolled home for one last chance to reel in dinner.  As we rounded the last point on our way south, the southwesterly winds brought up a bit of squall and we fought our way back to our campsite in strong gusts and foot to foot-and-a-half breakers to make us earn dinner. When we finally landed, I reeled in a 13 or 14 inch pike from the troll that I was too busy to land with the frantic-wind-fighting tandem paddle that we needed to reach land! Setting in for the evening, we made dinner as misty rain moved up the lake from the south. We were in for a wet evening as we crawled into our respective solo (dry) tents.

Day 3: Next morning the winds had subsided, temps were slowly rising and the sun was rising bright orange over the ridge to the east. We set out for Fourtown portages just down the shoreline to the south and west. We had to extend the first portage an extra 30 rods or so as the beavers had been at work building up an 8 to 10 foot wall of mud, sticks & logs! Dropping in on somewhat steep rock face, we paddled out. But then we didn’t have to worry because we had to hop back out of our boats, albeit one-at-a-time at the next rocky, single-exit portage.

Image

Curious here why the portage was not cut on the reedy other bank which is flat and wooded but looks to be an easier passage. The put-in on the other side of this portage is an even steeper, sheer rock face which just makes dropping one’s canoe back in an isometric endurance test! Paddling onward we were out of our canoes in less than 30 seconds for the final 10 rod portage as the boulder field was impassable, even for attempting to line-a-canoe. By now, the rocky, steep put-in was expected.

Image

Dodging submerged rocks as we each shoved off in our turn, we paddled out again for a short arm-stretcher until we reached the final 5 rod-portage-through-your campsite before reaching Fourtown. There was sandy beach at the other end of this short portage which made this transition easier. Had a good chat with a fellow paddler from one of the 5-stars at the mouth of this entry to Fourtown who reported “not being able to buy a bite” the day before as they were fishing on Fourtown. I guess we were lucky.

Image

Saying goodbye to John, my parallel solo partner who was heading into Boot for a solo night, I turned south to troll my way down to the triple-portage into Mudro where I was spending my last night in.

There is not much to say that hasn’t probably already been said (or written) about the Fourtown portages.  They are rocky portages that I didn’t find particularly difficult – except for that first “10 rod” portage which is actually more like a 40 rod portage that is a sheer rock face to climb!

ImageImage

However, I found the actual take-out from the north side and paddled back to it to portage my canoe (thankfully) and made it into the small unnamed beaver pond without a problem. Even dodged “Mr. Aggressive Beaver” cruising silently down to my end of the pond like a guided missile to check me out!

ImageImage

My mantra on these portages was “keep your feet” because an ankle-turn on one of these would mean dropping your load with a  crash and crawling out! The next 140 rod portage was actually a lot easier than I was anticipating: a short “up” and the trail levels off pretty quickly — and then it was just a carry through the autumn leaves with the creek rushing down below me to my left. I had to break up the impromptu beaver damn of a few fresh logs that the industrious rodents has started at the end of this portage — so that I could line my canoe a few rods into a deeper, “floatable” part of the stream before paddling the ½ minute or so to the final 30 rod portage. More rocks. Rocks. Rocks. Rocks. Basketball sized. Broken. Uneven. Pulling out my gear, I hoisted my rented boat as carefully as I could over my head and threaded my way through the labyrinth of the boulder field for 30 rods to Mudro.

Image

Image

Getting my gear loaded, I paddled the final 2 or 3 minutes to the one-and-only campsite on Mudro just to my left and around the bend from the put-in. Pretty site, fairly spacious with room for at least 2 and perhaps 3 tents and fairly well developed fire pit with a couple log seats. Nice bear hanging tree or two. With a cold night coming on, I quickly set up camp and made dinner. Being too tired to fish (is it possible?), I doused my abbreviated fire, hung my depleted food bag and dove into my bag as the temps dropped into the 30s.

Day 4: Beautiful sunny morning. Eschewing coffee and hot breakfast for a quick departure, I loaded and left thinking “ I bet the fishing this AM would be good after watching them rise late last night in the moonlight….” Oh well. A reason to return next Spring.

Image

Image

Image

A quick paddle found that the recent rains had risen Picket creek enough to effectively dodge submerged boulders and travel the length of the creek to the sandy beach takeout, shortening my final portage by about 20 or so rods.  A nice present for the end of the trip ( I hope the young couple heading in to Wheelbarrow portage with the wonderful, energetic husky had a great week on the water— I wanted to turn around and head right back in with them!).

Image

Image