Part 1 of 11
Sunday 09-25-16 I had originally planned on driving from Green Bay to the Kawishiwi Lake entry point, but work schedule changed that and I had to work all day. A quick stop home after work to load my gear and say goodbye to the family and I was on the road about 6PM. I arrived at our family cabin in northern Wisconsin at 8:30 for a nap. My cousin was there and we had a nice chat about my trip and past BWCA trips of his.
Part 2 of 11
Day 1 – Monday 09-26-16 I awoke to my alarm at 1AM and was quickly ready to roll. I ran into my cousin returning from town as I was pulling out of the driveway. He wished me luck on my trip and I was on the road, excited for a long day of travel. I had originally planned to pick up my entry permit at the Duluth Pack store in Duluth, but a change in my work schedule now required me to pick up my permit at the USFS ranger station in Tofte. I made much quicker time than expected, and arrived at the ranger station at 5:30 AM. I slept in my truck until 7, but realized that the ranger station did not open until 8, so I went back to bed. I eagerly waited at the door and quickly picked up my permit. I was expecting to have to watch the safety video, but was thankfully not required to do so. With permit in hand, I continued to the Kawishiwi Lake entry point, arriving at 9:15.
It had begun to rain over night and rain continued. I was fine with rain, but the wind had picked up out of the west during the morning. West winds were a steady 10-15 MPH with frequent gusts over 25 MPH. I had purchased my BlackLite Northstar Magic at Canoecopia in spring and had over 100 miles under it during the summer on local lakes and rivers, including some rough waters on Green Bay, but the wind and waves coming across Kawishiwi Lake had be concerned. I waited out the conditions, weighing my options, for a half hour. I was eager to paddle and decided to push forward as far as I could. My original plan was to camp on Malberg Lake today, but I knew that was looking less likely. I fought a tough crosswind across Kawishiwi, dancing across the waves as I quartered into the waves and sheltered behind small islands. Jerry Vandiver’s songs were often stuck in my head. The song of the day was surely, “Headwind.” I was grateful for the reprieve of the calm water as I left Kawishiwi Lake and paddled north towards Square Lake. South of Square, I snuck up on a pair of wood ducks, coming within twenty yards of the drake, enjoying his beauty before jumping the pair. It was here that I saw the first signs of the 2011 Pagami Creek fire. I had purposely chosen a route that would traverse a burn area, excited to see the rebirth of the forest post fire. The forest had a sort of eerie beauty to it. Among the charred remains of logs and stumps, sprouted birch and aspen, thriving in the rich soil and abundant sunlight now available to them. Throughout my trip, I would venture through different stages of post fire forest, enjoying each for their own unique beauty. The west wind across Square pushed me around the corner and I was quickly to the first portage of my journey, a short 26 rods. It had been my original goal to single portage and really make good time. During my final packing, I realized that the weight of my gear was adding up to a dangerous weight for me to handle on a single portage. I had been physically training hard all year, but had also been researching and seeking advice from others who had embarked on similar journeys to mine. I decided to heed advice of others and not risk injury, particularly on a solo trip. My father’s #3 Duluth Cruiser and my #2 Duluth pack turned out to be a perfect combination both for portaging and trimming the canoe. After a quick snack of beef jerky and trail mix, I continued on. The second portage between Square Lake and Kawasachong Lake was not needed due to elevated water levels. I did however have a 20 foot lift over on river right to pass a beaver dam south of Kawasachong. My battle with the west wind continued across Kawasachong and I made my first navigational error of the trip, ending up in a bay towards the Kawishiwi River instead of towards the portage to Townline Lake. I quickly realized my error and corrected my course to the Towline portage. The portage to Townline was marked as 190 rods, but it seemed much longer than that. Perhaps the Pagami Creek fire had caused the portage to be rerouted, resulting in the now estimated 320 rod portage. On this portage, I began to see what would come to be the greatest benefit of a double portage routine, the walk back. After dropping my first load of my big pack, I made the unloaded return trip for the canoe and smaller pack. It’s amazing what a man misses from the obstructed view under the yoke of a canoe. The seemingly out of place boulders shed by glaciers decades ago highlighted the magic of this place. I did not foresee the west wind being an issue on the short crossing of Towline Lake, but I failed to take into account the effect of a lack of mature trees due to the fire. The wind blew strong through the now immature forest and I knew that Lake Polly would wisely be my destination for the day. The Polly end of the portage out of Townline was very steep and rocky, but offered a beautiful view up the length of Polly. I also reached the northern reach of the Pagami Creek fire and the forest transitioned again to a mature forest. Here, I met a group of three heading out. They said that they had come from Alice and said that the waves were really rolling there. I would cross Alice later on my trip, but on a day with a much better forecast. My first stop on Lake Polly was the southwest site 1082. This site was small with no dry tent pads. I hugged the west shore and found my home for the night at site 1078. The site was sheltered by an island to its west and provided at least three tent sites, including a very dry one that was well sheltered. I quickly set up camp and prepared a meal of tacos made of ground beef which I had dehydrated into gravel. The cold, wind driven rain had me in the tent early at 6:00, reading from Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point. I found this book to be very fitting for my journey and drew many similarities from Olson’s experiences and the ones I was living myself.
Part 3 of 11
Day 2 – Tuesday 09-27-16 Happy birthday to me! The weather was not what I had dreamed of, still windy, misting, and cool, but I could not think of anywhere I would rather spend my birthday. I decided to have a layover day and slept in until 8:00. I was surprised to find a ten inch spruce blow down just ten feet from my tarp set up. I did not recall this blowdown the previous day. Perhaps it blew down during the night. A hot breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate really hit the spot. My Jetboil MiniMo really worked well. I checked my Delorme Inreach for messages and found my boys really missing me. Ten days without Dad would be hard on them. [paragraph break]The day was mainly spent reading under my CCS Tundra Tarp. My Bearvault made a decent seat, but I think a Helinox chair is certainly going on the wish list. A little fishing from shore turned up nothing but great views including a pair of eagles soaring across the lake. The rain began to let up after my lunch of ramen noodles, a meal that had me reminiscing of my college dorm life days. The winds stayed strong, through my dinner of burger, dehydrated baked beans, mashed potatoes, and ketchup. I enjoyed this dinner, but the burger needs more spice. I was in bed by 7:30 with an alarm set for first light and a plan to make it to Makwa Lake.
Part 4 of 11
Day 3 – Wednesday 09-28-16 I was up early and glad that the rain had stopped and it would remain dry the rest of my trip. It was still breezy, but the weather was improving and it would be a good day of travel. Packing up camp took longer than expected, nearly two hours. As the days went on, and I got more set in my routine, I cut my morning routine to under an hour from alarm to first paddle stroke. My goal for the day was the south site on Makwa, site 985. I had stayed at this site over 20 years earlier, as a child and had fond family memories of catching a large lake trout near this site with my brother, 28 inches if my memory serves me correctly. [paragraph break]As I paddled north on Polly, I passed a group camped on the northernmost site. I would enjoy solitude for the next day and a half. After the series of portages into Koma and a quick paddle across Koma, I reached the rapids into Malberg. I was amazed at the beauty of the boulder in the rapids into Malberg. The sheer size and placement of this boulder just seemed too perfect. The scenery improved immensely from this point on and I really began to feel at home.
The day consisted of several small portages, none too difficult, although muddy; they were flat and relatively uneventful. I found that the two marked portages from Anit to Pan was actually one longer portage. I did make one wrong turn, and found myself looking at Kivandeba instead of Panhandle Lake. I quickly corrected my route and reminded myself to trust my compass. Also, if the portage looks overgrown, there’s probably a good reason for that. [paragraph break]After seven hours of travel, I reached my goal, and was glad to find it available. Being open, this site didn’t offer much shelter. But what it lacked in cover, it most definitely made up for in scenery. In addition to the flood of memories, I was greeted with a beautiful view of the massive cliff wall north of camp and beautiful view down the length of Makwa. The distant sound of howling wolves to the north marked the end of a great day.
Part 5 of 11
Day 4 – Thursday 09-29-16 What an awesome day! This day was the kind of day I dreamed of when planning my trip. Winds were calm, overcast days, and perfect traveling weather. My plan was to travel north to Knife, but knew that this would depend on the weather, especially winds. I could not have asked for better conditions to cross the large lakes in this area, Little Saganaga, Gabimichigami, Ogishkemuncie, and Knife. Lots of travel was a major goal for this trip, and man did I get it. [paragraph break]My morning routine was really starting to get smooth and I was quickly heading north. The day was filled with beautiful scenery both on large and small water. One of the highlights of the day was traveling through the burn area of the 2006 Cavity Lake Fire. The Rattle Lake and the north end of Little Sag had the feeling of a mountain stream above the timber line.
I ran into three guys and a dog on the Mueller side of the portage from Agamok. They were dropping off one of the guys who was taking a day hike on the Kekekabic trail. Maybe someday I will hike the Kek trail, sure would be a different way to see the BWCA. Right after meeting this group, I found a blue jay feather on the portage to Ogi. This beautiful contrast of color in a forest losing its color to the changing season adorned the bow of my canoe for the next week.
I knew at some point I would start to run into more fellow travelers, and I surely did when I reached Ogishkemuncie. That was by far the busiest lake I paddled. I ran into one last pair of guys portaging out of Knife Lake into Eddy Lake. They would be the last human contact I would have for almost three full days. I had now found the solitude I had been seeking. [paragraph break]Knife Lake brought about a new scenery I had not yet seen on this trip. The combination of the vast vistas provided by this long lake and the tall peeks was very impressive. There was a beautiful waterfall out of Eddy into Knife. I’ve seen more impressive falls, this one was hidden by thick brush and choked with downed trees, but this one was more special for the journey. I tried my hand at trolling a shad rap as I paddled down the now glass length of Knife lake, with no luck. I found more and more on my trip that I would much rather just paddle and travel than fish. My goal for the night was site 1441 which offered a view of the Canadian border. I was unsure if there was an unmarked portage near site 1445 or if the long peninsula pointing west as actually an island, offering a water passage to its north side. My tiring muscles were glad to find a small stream with an easy portage of not more than twenty feet, saving me probably four miles of paddling. This back bay had a unique feel to it, reminiscent of Rattle Lake. Perhaps I was seeing the lasting effects of the 1999 blowdown. After nine and a half hours of travel, and the early fall sunlight running short, I was relieved to find my desired camp site unoccupied. As I pulled into camp, a bush plane flew overhead, heading towards Canada, a sign to me that I was where I was meant to be for the night. This site did not have many tent pads, more suited for a solo or small group. There was a steep climb from the boat landing to camp, but this provided a gorgeous view over the lake. I set up camp and paddled to a couple small islands just north of camp where I found plenty of firewood. A meal of pancakes, bacon, and eggs over a small fire made a great dinner after my longest day of travel yet. I figured this more involved meal would be better suited for dinner and I would stick to oatmeal or granola bars for breakfast. The western sky cleared just enough and just in time to allow the last rays of sunshine to shine through over my campfire for a perfect end to an amazing day.
Part 6 of 11
Day 5 – Friday 09-30-16 The day began hazy and I made a quick exit from camp with a grab and go breakfast of granola bars and gorp. I was greeted by a loon fishing in the calm waters west of camp. As I rounded the large island to head towards Bonnie Lake, I was intrigued by a bare field of boulders leading to an elevated cliff face. A closer look revealed a path heading up the south side of the cliff to a beautiful overlook facing west with Canada to my right and the United States to my left. This was a beautiful surprise to make my trip all the better.
I continued south over steep portages and through an old blowdown and burn area, enjoying clearing skies. I made the approximate two mile crossing of Kekekabic and marveled at the inviting towering hills to the east. Kek is a beautiful lake, one that I'd like to explore further on a future trip. Further south, Wisini lake provided beautiful views as well. One cliff in the southeast corner of Wisini resembled a face profile, perhaps a Native spirit looking over the land.
A slight south wind picked up as I paddled down Fraser, but I was able to skirt the islands to avoid any trouble. My father’s old map showed a US government building on one of the islands of Fraser. A hike around the marked area showed no remains of the cabin. I guess it has since been removed. I made an early camp, taking site 1188 on the north side of Thomas Lake. This seemed to be a well-used site. I was disappointed at the amount of garbage in the fire grate. The grate was full of tin foil, even a tuna can. I cleaned up and packed out all I could find. I had time to wash clothing, take a refreshing dip, and do a little exploring and fishing behind camp on Harmony Lake. No luck fishing, but I did come across a large painted turtle crossing the portage, which quickly scurried into the woods. [paragraph break]I made another dinner of pancakes over a fire. I learned two lessons with this dinner, I need a better non-stick fry pan, and I need an ax to make splits if I plan to cook over fire. After watching a nice sunset and the stars come out, I nestled into my tent for a relaxing sleep.
Part 7 of 11
Day 6 – Saturday 10-01-16 I could not believe my good fortune with the weather I was having. Fantastic weather made it possible for me to solo travel the larger lakes on this route. I double portaged the long portage from Thomas into Alice on fresh legs. Although long, the portage was rather level, and not too difficult. I paddled south across Alice Lake, which was like glass in the morning calm. I was amazed to find no signs of any other visitors on this popular lake.
My next stop was Fishdance Lake for the pictographs. I had visited the pictographs with father and some of my brothers on my last BWCA trip in 2006, when we base camped on Insula. I was returning now older, and with a greater appreciation for what I was seeing. As I approached the ancient drawings, the first wind of the day picked up, but would quickly dissipate after I left the area. I was left with an eerie feeling. Had I been visited by “The Spirit of Fishdance Lake?”
I continued up the Kawishiwi River to Beaver Lake. The fall colors were starting to turn and were beautiful down this historic stretch. I couldn’t help but think of the countless voyageurs and Natives who had traveled before me down this same waterways and portages. After almost a week of traveling alone, I was really starting to feel a connection to my surroundings.
I was planning on pushing forward to Adams or Boudler Lake to camp tonight. As I rounded the point to head east on Beaver Lake, I was greeted by an otter playing off the campsite on the point. I continued east, looking for the portage to Adams. I thought I had located the portage on river right, but was quickly second guessing myself. The portage started out in a dense patch of white cedars, but quickly disappeared. It was getting late, and I really did not feel like getting lost trying to push on. I had a weird feeling that I was not meant to go further, that I was meant to stay on Beaver Lake for some reason. As I back tracked on Beaver, a bald eagle appeared overhead and led me west, right back to the campsite that I had seen the otter playing. I knew I was home for the night. [paragraph break]This site (1967) offered beautiful views on both sides of the peninsula, with nice rocks to sit and enjoy the views. The evening turned out to be magical as the witching hour that Sigurd Olson speaks of set in. The water came alive with fish feeding, almost making the water boil. I tried briefly to fish for one, but found much more enjoyment in simply paddling slowly through the magical evening. The hooting of a Great Horned Owl west of camp put the punctuation point on a magnificent day.
Part 8 of 11
Day 7 – Sunday 10-02-16 I made a short travel day, traveling to Malberg Lake site 1056. I opted to take the northeast route into Malberg. The yellow of the fall birch trees was really popping along the Kawishiwi as the morning fog lifted. One particular birch on Trapline Lake really popped against the contrasting evergreens behind.
I stopped below the falls out of Malberg into the Kawishiwi River to toss a No. 0 Mepps spinner. A jerk on the line and I landed a beautiful smallmouth. Not a record breaker, but exactly what I needed. On a bed of wild rice and baked beans, this made for a delicious amazing shore lunch.
As I entered Malberg, I saw the first people I had seen since Thursday. It was the warmest day yet, temperatures must have been in the upper 60’s with plenty of sunshine. I had enjoyed my solitude and long days of travel. I was feeling wore out though, and needed an afternoon of rest. I spent the remainder of the day leaned against a tree with my #2 Duluth pack as a backrest, writing in my journal and reading deep into Listening Point. As I wrote in my journal, a Kevlar Wenonah canoe came down the narrows of Malberg towards me. The voices of its three paddlers carried with the wind across the water. They were a quarter mile away, but might as well have been right in camp with me. They clicked their gunnels as they passed, carried south by the breeze. I heard one say, “Lone wolf.” I guess that’s me. A sip of fresh Malberg water and I immersed myself back into my novel, enjoying the best sunset of the trip.
Part 9 of 11
Day 8 – Monday 10-03-16 I awoke to a foggy morning. This was my last full day in the BWCA and I celebrated with a big breakfast of pancakes, hash browns, and Ova Easy eggs. My Jetboil MiniMo made quick work of this meal. I paddled down to the rapids out of Koma to get out of camp for a bit, but was not feeling the greatest and headed back to camp. I was developing stomach issues and was hoping they would pass by morning for my paddle out. The forecast for Tuesday called for south winds of 5-10 MPH with higher gusts. I entertained the idea of paddling part of the way out today, but the south winds began to really pick up around 10:30, erasing any thought of long travel today. I decided to get an early morning start in hopes of beating the worst of the winds. My trip was coming to an end, which saddened me, but I was excited to get home, as my kids were really starting to miss their dad.
Part 10 of 11
Day 9 – Tuesday 10-04-16 I was up before the sun and on the water at 6:30. I had fine-tuned my routine throughout the week and made the earliest start of my trip. The winds picked up throughout the morning, but remained manageable. That was of course, until I reached the final mile of my trip. The headwind across Kawishiwi Lake must have been twenty miles per hour. These were by far the worst seas of my trip, but the end was in sight and I pushed through. I had full confidence in my Northstar Magic and made it safely to the entry point with my bailing sponge still dry. [paragraph break]The day may have been getting too windy to paddle, but it was still a beautiful day to drive home. I stopped in Duluth to have a half inch tear mended in my dad’s Duluth Pack and continued home to the waiting arms of my family. [paragraph break] “And so it will be for centuries to come. Men will always be drawn to the last frontiers, where they can recapture some of the basic satisfactions and joys of the race, renew the sense of mystery and wonder and even some of the dreams their forebears had known. Some will embark on wilderness expeditions, but most will content themselves with a fleeting look at places that are still wild and unchanged. Even those who cannot travel will gain comfort from knowing far horizons are there.” Sigurd F Olson – Listening Point
Part 11 of 11
Prologue - As I look back on my wilderness expedition, I feel a great sense of accomplishment for the journey I have completed, knowing that I had not settled for a fleeting look. I feel a greater sense of who I am and a renewed appreciation for the unique beauty of the BWCA. I very much enjoyed traveling solo and will have to make at least one annual BWCA trip with plans for even longer excursions. Traveling solo allowed me to make my trip exactly what I wanted, travel when I wanted, rest when I wanted, eat what I wanted, and go at whatever pace I felt like. It allowed me to fully immerse myself in the wilderness experience. [paragraph break]A special thanks to those on the BWCA.com forum who provided so much advice and inspiration. I can’t help but feel forever grateful to my father for instilling a love deep within me for this magical place on the many trips he led me on as a child. I am currently planning a trip to return the favor and lead him on a trip this summer. I have begun to pass on my love for canoe camping to my own children and enjoy seeing the excitement in their eyes. And finally, thanks to my loving wife for keeping the home fires burning while I chased my dreams. I still love camping in a group, but I’m definitely hooked on solo tripping!