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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.