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.

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