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.

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!

Lerome/Sue Falls-Cirrus Solo, Explore, Fish: September 14, 2013

Description of Trip

A solo trip to base camp, explore ‘upper Cirrus’ and fish that I had wanted to take since the beginning of the summer. I had also considered taking my family in through this route in July but opted for Beaverhouse-Cirrus (which was a better option!). It was a 5 ½ hour trek heading in as I searched about for portages and fought a bit of wind. Coming out I faired only a little better taking 5 hours from my campsite outside of Sue Falls to the take-out at the Lerome Lake access just off the Trans-Canadian.

Day 1 of 5

Started the day from the Twin Cities. Warm and a bit breezy but a delightful day and easy drive. Had a quick detour over to Ely to pick up a used Thermarest Guidelite series pad from an outfitter. Road work almost completed on 169 which was a blessing and I zipped in and zipped out of town quickly. Finally made it to International Falls by 9PM and stopped at the Voyageur Hotel. A great little place that is run by an older couple like a bed & breakfast. Felt as though I was walking into their living room when I entered the lobby. Good night sleep.

Heading North from the Twin Cities on I-35!

Day 2 of 5

Awoke at 5:30AM. Red sky morning sunrise and out the door at 6:30 to head for the border crossing. Made Atikokan by 8:30AM and self-registered. Stopped by Robins to pick up a blueberry muffin and fresh coffee since I didn’t have time for breakfast in International Falls (a great place!). Headed back west on the Trans Canadian for the 5 ½ miles to the Lerome Lake access/put-in. Windy! Winds blew from the SW at 12km/hr (7-10 mph or so) with gusts a bit higher. Was blown back into the first bay and had to fight my way through a small islet of reeds into next bay on the eastern coastline where I was promptly blown back into that bay!

Voyager Hotel IntlFalls   Dont Bumpadahead

Since I need to make time, I got out, moved from the bow (I was trying out paddling backwards) to the stern, readjusted my packs and hugged the shoreline down to where the portage was supposed to be. Had a bit of difficulty as I always seem to have with locating the first portage but finally there it was.

No Name lake put-in was very windy – sort of a natural wind funnel there I guess — but once away I was able to paddle down the Jackfish creek portage. Despite the stinking, loon-crap muck at the put-in Jackfish creek water levels were up high enough for me to float my boat without having to do the extra 114 or so rod “bog-trot” that Beymer describes. Beaver dam lift-over was not a big issue and found myself paddling easily across Bewag to next portage.

Portage Lerome NoName Lake        Jackfish Creek portage

Located a steep takeout on southwest shoreline as I aimed off where I thought the portage should be. Found a steep, rocky 10- or 15- rod goat-trail climb that levels out and gently drops down to Lark Lake. As a word of caution: Don’t take this portage! Continue southeast about another 200 to 300 yards along the south shoreline of Bewag and you will find a gentler, sandy/grassy takeout with a gentle rise and then level carry into Lark (found this out on the way out on Day 4!)

This was becoming an adventure on shore-hugging and portage –location. At the back of Lark I had read about “entering the marsh”. With a bit of trepidation, I paddled the 5 minutes or so across Lark to the south shore and entered a narrow marshy, lily-pad

SF portage take 2

strewn swamp-lined channel with red pitcher-plants. As I wound my way south, a beaver dam stretched in front of me west-to-east. I found the short white rock at the eastern edge of the dam that marked the take-out into another stinking, oozy mess that I thankfully only sunk about calf-deep into with my canoe-hat. Good thing that my Wellingtons stayed on my feet for the 20 rod carry into what I’m guessing is the upper part of Cole Lake.

Navigating the narrow, but pretty switchback into Cole Lake is actually a treat as an eagle or two soared above this secluded water, lined by largely pine and various conifers. Finding the entry to Cirrus Creek, I paddled south on the highly-flooded stream and swamp to the portage just east of the beaver dam across the creek and carried down to Sue Falls.

SoloCirrus 1st night camp     Campsite night one Cirrus

It was now 3 in the afternoon and rain was starting to threaten overhead. I took another half hour to set up my trolling rig, snack, rehydrate and consult my maps before pushing off into the little bay protecting Sue Falls. Paddling to the west, I trolled past a set of islands and picked up a smallmouth bass dinner. Perfect. Located my campsite (A2) on a well-sheltered point of land shortly after that and made quick work of cleaning the fish, setting up camp and starting the fire…..as rain started to patter down….one drop…at….a…time. Hate to say it, but good nutrition suffered that meal as fish was followed by s’mores to facilitate a quick cleanup before diving into my tent at 8:30. Fatigue was also setting in!

Fish in a pan 1st night Cirrus   Smore dinner night 1 Cirrus

Day 3 of 5

Next morning, startled another eagle that soared across Cirrus from the stand of trees at my site. Beautiful sun peeking out. Caught a small walleye about 6 inch from the point of the campsite and released. Had to move on as I wanted to get down to the lower “upper part” of this upper arm of Cirrus (just above the north-south channel that connects both parts of Cirrus Lake). Started moving out under light winds on the northern shore of lake. With wind picking up, made a stop at a nice 5 star site (94) across the lake from the “pinch” in the land where the eastern upper arm meets the “lower” eastern arm.

Quick mid-morning break. After my own internal debate, I opted for the more conservative route which is to make a wide “C” by hugging the northern bay from this site and exploring the great little islands and potential sites back there. Beautiful potential camp sites back there! Then shot a gap between two islands guarding the bay and hit the opposite, southern shoreline which guided me to the pinch and I easily dropped down into the lower upper arm of Cirrus. Winds abated. Beautiful paddling now under sunny skies.

Island Campsite on lower arm of Cirrus Lake – Night #2 of trip by Nandagikendan

Finally made my destination campsite on an island (34Y) above the north-south channel but it was already taken by the only other two souls that I’ve encountered on the lake. So, disappointed I begin picking my way down the north-south channel ruling out potential campsites that turn out not to exist until I find the island campsite (3F) at the end of the north-south channel. This is familiar ground as my family and I paddled past this site when visiting the other great campsite at the end of this channel this past July!

Setting up camp first, I then get to work fishing some jigs and a husky jerk and a spinner but no luck even as evening sets in. No fish today with dinner as I’m appropriately humbled. Crawl in early as I’m beat from a long day’s paddle and tonight is supposed to get down to freezing.

Day 4 of 5

Fog! Woke early this AM to find the rain stopped and FOG had rolled in! Couldn’t see past the trees on the top of the island campsite and definitely couldn’t see the water below. Unbelievable. Was supposed to have frost during the night (Atikokan saw -2 C temps) but no sign of it — just the lake evidently cooling off and the air above starting to rapidly warm. Quickly burned off though as the sun came up over the trees to form a truly spectacularly beautiful, sunny morning with no wind. Time to get going!

Island Fog Cirrus from island camp day 2  Fog lifting from island camp Cirrus AM day 3

I could not resist throwing in a floating rap for a couple of casts. A few nibbles but I had to get going to make Sue Falls by midday in case anyone else had similar plans.

EDITED

Heading north via channel connecting lower and middle arms of Cirrus Lake, by Nandagikendan

Set up trolling with a storm thunder stick and jigging rod in channel. Caught and released a walleye and SM while trolling shadows about 10 to 15 feet off shoreline. All told there were 5 small mouth and one pike of 24 inches that morning. Finally had to pull in the line so that I could finish paddling up to Sue Falls which I reached shortly after midday.  Chose my campsite (BD) on one of  peninsulas after a 4-hour paddle start-to-finish with two seat breaks and one to tie up fish on my stringer and dump them in my 50L dry bag doubling as my day tank. Dried out gear. Cleaned fish and ate a late shore lunch/early dinner.

24 in Pike Cirrus   SM 15 and 17 together

Checked out site and did my part by partially relocating and rebuilding the lower fire pit. Finally located the upper fire pit and campsite. Apparently 2 or 3 other tent pads have been covered by the large blow downs up there and the undergrowth – would need a bit of work with a swizzle stick, crossbow saw and maybe a chainsaw to hack out a tent pad or two in that area, as well as a bit more fire pit construction both upper and lower to turn this back into a 5-star. Unfortunately, one of last residents had tried to burn tin foil and drink mix wrappers in fire! Picked up what I could. Need to return at some point for camp maintenance and cleanup….and more fishing.

Day 5 of 5

The regret of any trip is when you realize that it’s moving day and time to head back out! Broke camp at 7:30 which is a bit of a record for me – as much as I love an early start, I have a hard time motivating myself to get out of my comfortable sleeping bag (and now pad!) before 6:30AM on any trip. Gorgeous sunny day with no wind so off I went for a trudge up the falls and into Cirrus Creek where the fish were jumping! Finally made No Name before being buffeted by winds for about 2 or 3 minutes and fought my way into the wind tunnel (think Venturi effect in fluid dynamics!) that is the 5-rod portage back into Lerome. Expectedly with winds coming again out of the south/southwest, the southern shore was calm once I exited the wind tunnel portage. Hugged the shoreline all the way home taking my back passage behind an island through a swamp that probably is impassable in low water levels until I made landfall back at the take-out. Five hours start to finish! Time for some Gatorade and a rest!

The only question that remains is when do I get to go back?!