BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
November 13 2018
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1498 feet
Ram Lake - 44
40 Years Celebrated by 4-Nights Solo
June 30, 2018
Lizz and Swamp Lakes (47)
Number of Days:
Today featured my drive from Chicago through Wisconsin, up the north shore and ultimately to Rockwoods outfitters where I would be spending the night in their bunkhouse.
The drive went by quickly. I don't really mind driving alone. I took a short diversion off of 53 near Solon Springs, WI to drive by the location of my family's former cabin near Lake Minnesuing. I spent a lot of time there as a lad and the property - while completely unrecognizable from last I'd seen it - brought back some fond memories.
It was a 95-degree day across the midwest....until you got within about 12 miles of Lake Superior, where it almost immediately dropped about 35 degrees and got foggy.
I headed up the north shore and stopped at Palisade Head to take a few pictures, but it was too foggy for much of a view. Cold too!
I made my way to Grand Marais by late afternoon and had a couple pints at Voyager Brewing Company. It was so bizarre seeing everyone in town wearing a sweatshirt while I knew that everywhere else in the midwest was blistering hot that day.
One or two more stops in town and I headed up the gunflint, stopping at Trail Center to grab a few camp chow products, then to Rockwoods. Mike met me, showed me to my accommodations for the night, gave me my permit, etc, then I was free for the evening. I went over to Poplar House for an excellent walleye sandwich for dinner. Good service and cool setting there on their back patio overlooking Poplar Lake...and it was nice and warm away from the lake up on the hill here!
I also drove up the road that leads to Hungry Jack and Bearskin lakes, just to maybe get a nice view and I did find a spot to do some shore fishing. Calm and peaceful evening, with plenty of mosquitoes, I was definitely getting into Boundary Waters mode.
Jumped in with Carl from Rockwood who was shuttling me and my canoe and gear to EP 44 - Ram Lake. It's hard for me to recall exactly why I chose this EP back in the winter, but I know one thing I wanted to do was a point to point trip or a loop rather than an out and back, and I know I've always been intrigued by this area. I was familiar with Rockwoods because we've used them as a group a few years back going in to Skipper/Rush/Banadad, and it seemed pretty convenient to go in at 44 and back out through Poplar right to their location. I liked the options I had in terms of having the ability to travel farther and longer and see more lakes, or easily make it from my entry to my exit without a ton of travel, if I decided I didn't want to be on the move so much.
Being my first solo, and actually my very first time paddling a solo canoe, I really had no idea what kind of trip I was going to want to do. I felt like I was probably going to want to be on the move just to reduce the chances of pure boredom on these long, just after solstice, days. But then I also didn't know how much the portaging and paddling might take out of me and thought maybe I'd be perfectly content lounging around camp or fishing all day.
Anyway, Carl dropped me off at the remote and desolate EP....no cars there, only one permit per day, and having looked it up, I knew no one went in here the previous 3 days. That was a cool feeling when he drove off....just me and my stuff, ready to start my adventure.
The trip starts with an 85-rod portage into Ram Lake, and it's a good little workout to get you sweaty right away. Hills and boulders are a very common theme on these portages.
I doubled this portage as I would do the whole trip. I had one large CCS Pioneer pack and one small backpack basically serving as a food pack. So I could carry that along with my boat on one trip and the big pack on the second.
Loaded at Ram and started learning how to do the whole solo canoeing thing. First challenge is the landings. And I guess I jumped right into the deep end because landings are pretty much non-existent in this area. Usually just a field of boulders marking the "landing" to your portage or campsite.
But I figured it out and began the paddle across Ram. Since I paid for the trout stamp on my fishing license I felt obligated to throw in a spoon to troll for a trout on my way across the lake. No bites, but it did start raining. I did have a moment of..."nice, my first lake on my first solo and it's going to do THIS?" but in the end it didn't bother me much as it was humid and I was already plenty wet from sweating through the portage and under my life jacket while paddling. Not a big deal. I just really didn't want to see the wind pick up.
I was loving the kayak paddle I got from Rockwoods. They gave me both a canoe and kayak paddle and I could tell anytime I was trying to make up any real ground, I was going to prefer the kayak. Great control of the boat and with a blade in the water at all times you can fly.
I stopped at the vacant campsite on Ram just to have a look-see. I wasn't very impressed.
The portages from Ram to Kroft then Kroft to Rum are currently indistinguishable in my mind. Both a very reasonable distance - I think one was quite a bit hillier than the other one, but neither were a picnic. I was putting in some work on this put in day for sure, but it felt good and I was polishing my portaging process. It's a little tedious strapping the paddles, fishing rod & life jacket to the boat, and removing and attaching the portage yoke at every portage, but such is life I guess.
Stopped to fish for a bit on Rum before heading through the portage to Little Trout. I was parked casting a line on Rum about 50 yards from a loon when he suddenly started fly-walking directly toward me....he was flying about 6 inches above the water but his wings were whacking the water every time they flapped. Eventually he gained a couple feet of altitude and diverted from my canoe, darting past me about 10 feet directly in front of me and off down the lake he went. Really cool.
I got on to Little Trout through another portage similar to all the rest around here...tough landings, tough terrain, but short enough to get through before you get a chance to really hate what you're doing.
On Little Trout I was ready to find a campsite. The next portage was the infamous beast up to Misquah. And I knew the site on Misquah was pretty shabby, so I'd probably have to then go to Vista. And there are only 3 sites there - no guarantees they would be available this time of year. It would have felt silly for me to use this remote EP only to travel all day to what would probably be a very populated area. So I was plenty content to stay on Little Trout - it was pretty much my plan all along.
I paddled to all 3 sites on the lake which were all empty. I ended up liking the northeastern most site in the bay the best. None of them are great, but I liked the feel of this one, facing into the bay. I'll just post my campsite review here...."I liked the "feel" of this site better than the other two on the lake. It faces into the easternmost bay of Little Trout Lake and makes you feel like you have the place to yourself. It's not very big, and not terribly open to the lake, but I found it comfortable for a solo. There was one nice tent pad for my 3-man tent. No good opportunity for shore fishing. I did swim from here though."
After all that portaging, humidity, and paddling the entire circumference of Little Trout looking at the campsites, I was pretty spent, and took a moment to just sit in my chair before even setting up camp. I knew no one was going to be coming from the Ram Lake direction, and was 96% sure no one was going to be coming through from Misquah at this time of the afternoon (very few people do that no matter what time of the day). I have a feeling that Ram and Misquah and Little Trout are destination lakes in the spring for trout, but come July don't see much traffic at all.
So I took a long moment to just soak it in. Here I was finally in the wilderness, on my first solo. And I was about as solo as you can get. There was no one camped behind me in the Ram Lake direction. No one on my lake. A really long grueling portage up to Misquah where there was probably no one camped. So I figured the next closest people were probably up on Vista. What a feeling. I was loving it.
Had some lunch and set up camp, went for a swim to cool off. Took the boat back out to troll for an elusive lake trout. I really didn't have much idea what I was doing in terms of catching a trout in July, but had some time on my hands so gave it a shot. I put on the biggest heaviest spoon in my tackle box, a steel leader, and a couple sinkers farther up the line. Then I let out damn near all the line on my reel and just paddled for a while over the deepest part of the lake. From reading things on this site, that seemed about the best way to get a lure down as deep as the trout hang this time of year....but alas no bites came my way.
Back to camp I had pork chops and some camp chow wild rice soup for dinner...I have to give that soup a thumbs down. It just didn't have much flavor and the rice was rubbery. The other camp chow products I tried were good. The pork chop was great though. Idled around camp throughout the evening, starting a fire before it was dark, for no particular reason. It got me too hot so I let it die out. My site was facing north and east with no exposure toward the sunset, but I could tell it was probably a good one. The trees on the other side of the lake were lit up and there were some wispy clouds in the sky that generally make for a good sunset. So I took the boat out again to get a look at it, along with my fishing rod to see if maybe they would cooperate in the evening.
I got on the lake and was indeed treated to a nice view of the sunset. Gorgeous. On the lake with an empty boat for the first time though, I quickly learned how unstable the solo can be with so little weight in it. My movements would rock the boat and I became fairly uncomfortable out there, to the point that I didn't want to fish at all. Being solo, priority #1 on this trip was safety. I promised my wife I wouldn't do anything stupid and was pretty committed to following through with that. I guess lesson learned - throw some gear in the boat before heading out from now on.
I didn't go far from camp though so got back no problem and hunkered down for the evening. Started another fire, but the mosquitoes came out and it wasn't worth trying to ride out the 'squito storm that usually lasts about an hour right after dusk this time of year. I was tired and ready for some sleep. It was fun listening to all the critters that come out at night in a quiet, remote place like this. God knows what they all were, but plenty of things were lurking in my site that night!
Slept ok and woke up with pretty much one thing on my mind...just how bad was this portage from Little Trout to Misquah going to be? That was objective #1 for the day - get that behind me.
So I had some breakfast and broke camp and paddled up to the portage...one of the worst landings yet. No where to stand or put your canoe when you get out of the water - just a field of large ankle breaking boulders.
Started the portage with my large pack because I wanted to be able to see where I was going on my first pass through. It punches you in the face right away with probably the steepest and longest climb right there within the first 20 rods. Then a couple of other weird overgrown spots where you could possibly lose the trail if you weren't paying attention. Then mud...then a field of boulders...etc, etc. But overall, I did fine with it all and just tried to be deliberate with my steps and not worry about how long it might take me. I GPS'd it at exactly 3/4's of a mile and I think it took me 26 or 27 minutes? Maybe 24, I don't remember. It was not that bad. Went back and got the canoe and traversed it again and was greeted by rain on the landing to Misquah.
I threw my rain jacket on for the rainy paddle up Misquah, which is a really cool lake. The rain jacket seemed counter productive though, because it was warm and humid to the point where I was a sweaty mess under the jacket, so I'm soaked either way....rain or sweat, pick your poison.
I stopped to check out the campsite on Misquah and it was indeed pretty crummy. Finished paddling Misquah in steady but not oppressive rainfall. Portaged into Vista and found my first sign of other campers, as the southeastern most site there was occupied. I paddled up Vista through the rain, actually coming to peace with my rainy paddling. It cooled me off, kept other people off the lakes and I knew all my clothes and gear were secured in dry bags so I wasn't too concerned about gear being wet.
But Horseshoe seemed like a good enough destination for today. While I did have thoughts and options of going west from there to Gaskin, Allen, maybe Henson or Pillsbury, I guess I didn't feel the need to keep travelling in the rain beyond a lake everybody raves about like Horseshoe.
Starting from the south on Horseshoe I checked out the easternmost site secluded back in its own dead end bay and passed on that one. The site itself could have suited me, but the feeling of being back in a swampy little section of the lake wasn't what I was going for - I wanted more of a view I guess. Paddled up to the central part of Horseshoe where there is a cluster of 3 sites all within pretty close proximity. It must have been moving day on Horseshoe because they were all available. I landed at all of them and picked the one I liked best - the southernmost one.
It was still raining and had no signs of letting up and I was wanting to get myself and my gear dried out a bit, so I immediately set up my tarp and found a higher drier spot under the tarp to set my gear and pulled out my chair and just watched it rain.....and rain and rain and rain. It was vacillating between pouring and just raining steadily for the next several hours. My site was flooding - the pools of water were creeping toward my gear and me, and I was running out of dry land to stash my stuff. This was also giving me an interesting look at what might serve as a tend pad in this site....the one I was planning to use was holding tons of water so I was actually glad I hadn't gotten a chance to set my tent up there. There was one in a lower spot that seemed to be draining better (weird huh?), so when the rain subsided a bit I ran over and quickly set up my tent, then brought my sleeping pad, bag and a book over there and tried to dry out in the tent.
It felt good to get cozy and finally out of the rain, but the rain wasn't going anywhere. I laid and read my book and listened to steady raindrops until about 7:30pm when it finally stopped. So that was about 10 hours of very persistent rain.
The campsite was still quite soggy, but the evening turned beautiful and allowed me to make some food and start drying my stuff out on clotheslines and exposed rocks. I even managed to make a bit of a fire - someone had left some good split wood stacked right on the firegrate, and while it did get soaked all day, it dried out enough in the evening hours to actually burn.
At some point the previous day while I was wallowing in the rain I decided I was going to lay over today and not move camps. I had not yet gotten a chance to explore or fish Horseshoe at all, and I didn't really feel like packing up a soaking wet campsite and moving just for the sake of moving. I hadn't "taken in" this campsite at all, being marooned in a tent the previous day, so I wanted to lay down some roots and enjoy what was looking to be a nice day.
This was going to severely limit the amount of ground I would cover on this trip, but I was ok with that. In the planning stages, I had thoughts of travelling farther and checking many lakes off the ol' bucket list, but I knew I needed to stay flexible and what my body and mind were telling me were to just relax and enjoy the day and dry out.
I tried some fishing in the morning, but still could not get anything to bite. It was now that I realized how frustrating it can be to fish in a solo canoe. The slightest bit of wind just pushes you to a spot you didn't intend to be, or right up on shore. I've never taken the time to bother with an anchor - maybe I would try that next time.
I then set out on a day trip, with the plan being a loop up through the north arm of Horseshoe, over to Allen, down to Gaskin, then back to camp through the southern arm of Horseshoe - it would give me a chance to see and fish some other lakes, as well as pretty much all of Horseshoe.
So I trolled my way up through Horseshoe and around to the portage into Allen, which is a cool portage along a creek. Allen was a cool little lake with one campsite that is too small to accommodate much of a group, but if you're a solo or duo, I think you might enjoy having this lake to yourself. I fished Allen a little bit with, again, no success.
Allen took me to little Jump lake which took me to Gaskin. The landing from Jump to Gaskin was cool....note that I didn't say *easy*, but it was an interesting spot with some running water and a dam you can rest your boat against to get in.
I had a pretty good idea what I was in store for on Gaskin, but still wanted to check out this lake a bit. It was a little windy, and it doesn't take more than a *little* wind to get the chop going on this lake. My kayak paddle had me feeling in good control though and I had seen so many good fishing reports of this lake that I wanted to at least troll around for a bit.
So I set out into Gaskin trolling west around the peninsulas and islands, directly into the wind. It was challenging but didn't seem unsafe so I kept going for a while. Once I got to the largest expanse of open water in the central part of the lake though, I wasn't really loving it out there. So I turned around and started paddling with the wind back toward the eastern part of the lake. While I was now moving quite a bit faster, I found it just as challenging going with the wind...any time I wasn't running parallel with the wind, it wanted to grab the back of my boat and try to turn me sideways. So it took some muscle to keep myself from getting blown sideways.
I stopped at the campsite on the southern peninsula with the staircase for a rest. Cool site, but landing and then loading again was dicey as heck with the water and wind rolling directly into me and my boat along the rocky shoreline.
But all went fine and I finished the paddle through Gaskin and headed through the portage back into Horseshoe. Going east on the southern arm of Horseshoe was much like going east on Gaskin - winds coming from behind me were making for tricky paddling and no chances to stop and do any fishing beyond trolling. I was on the lookout for the campsite on this arm of the lake, but couldn't even see it from the lake and couldn't really slow down to look for it without getting blown around.
Got back to camp in early afternoon and had some time to kill. This is when some thoughts of loneliness creep in when you're solo. These are long days and even though I felt like I had already done a lot this day, it was still many hours until sundown. I didn't really feel like going back out on the lake at all because it was just too breezy to do any fishing. I was a little annoyed that I couldn't swim from my campsite because I really wanted to cool off and remove some accumulated grime.
But, it wasn't raining and I was happy enough hanging out tossing a leech under a slip bobber into the lake and doing some reading. I did take the boat back out once again in the evening trying to finally land my elusive first fish of the trip, but was stymied once again.
I spent the evening with an awesome sunset, a nice campfire, a painted turtle that really liked creeping around my camp and showing up in odd places, and a few tears, as this was the one-year anniversary of the death of my brother, who was also my best friend. I sat, recalling all of the good times we had together over the years, but unable to not think of all that we would be missing out on in the years to come. I definitely didn't feel alone this night. Rest easy brother, it was nice to spend the night with you.
I spent a pretty clammy, uncomfortable night in my humid tent and realized at some point during the night that it was still holding a bubble of water underneath it from all the rain that came through 2 days prior. I use a piece of plastic as a footprint for my tent and there was water trapped under it that I couldn't push out. It wasn't coming into the tent as water, but I think it made the floor a little damp and sticky and just overall I was fairly uncomfortable most of the night. Not being able to swim/bathe since I arrived on Horseshoe didn't help matters either.
Then, I was greeted by a decent little rainstorm in the early morning hours....probably 2 hours of pretty good rain. This annoyed me because I was definitely packing up and moving today, and now had to pack up a wet tent & tarp, etc. I hate doing that.
So I packed up my soggy camp and headed out to find a destination for my last night. The only lake that it really made sense for me to go to, given that I was exiting through Poplar the next day, was Caribou. Maybe Meeds, and I was open to that idea, but anywhere else farther west would have just put me that much farther away from my exit point, and I really didn't want to have to travel much that day. Whatever travel I was going to in the park on my way out was going to be followed by a 10-hour drive back home to Chicago that same day, so I wanted to get out early, and not too weary from portaging.
So I headed up to Caribou and to be completely honest wasn't even sure if I was going to set up camp for one last night. I was fairly annoyed and uncomfortable with all my wet gear. I easily got to Caribou early and the exit point through Lizz was right there in spitting distance. I started thinking about calling my wife and how excited she would be to hear from me a day early, and also maybe breaking up my drive home with an overnight stop in a hotel somewhere. I told myself I would see what's available on Caribou and if I found a specific type of site, I would stay.
I'm going to sound like a real princess right now, but I told myself I need an open, exposed site with some space in the sun to dry things out and for me to soak up some rays if it got nice. I also told myself I needed the weather to start looking better - I wasn't going to spend another afternoon in my tent listening to rain, and I wasn't going to spend a night in some shabby low lying campsite that wasn't going to dry out. It was still very overcast and I wasn't sure what the weather was going to do. I also needed to be able to get in the water and swim a bit from this site.
So I just circled Caribou and visited every site. Starting at the southeastern site I worked my way around one by one, and each one was either occupied, or exactly the kind of site I didn't want to stay at. Low, small, wet, shabby. I couldn't do it, given that I had such an easy route out of there. So 7 sites went that way and I had one left...the one directly across the portage into Lizz. It was open, and...
It was the perfect site.
There was a lot of exposed space, and a cool humongous rock right in camp, and swimming would be no problem. Even the tent pad at this site was right out on the lake, exposed.
One problem though...as soon as I climbed onto camp it started raining again. Not hard, but enough to once again put me on the fence about staying another night. The portage out was within clear view and right across from my site!
But it was still early enough in the day that I wanted to see what the day did weather wise. I set up my tarp and put my stuff under it to keep it dry, and given that I was still completely skunked on this trip in the fishing department, decided I'd go out fishing while I waited to see what the weather did.
And I caught 3 fish! Three measly Walleye, all of marginal keeper status, but they all went back in anyway. It felt good to be on the board and not have to tuck my tail between my legs and talk about getting completely skunked. I am not a polished fisherman, but I can usually get something in the boat and it would hurt spending 4 nights in the BW with zero fish.
And while I was out there, more and more blue skies from the west began heading my way until at some point before noon or so, it was clear that we had a stunner at hand and I was gonna stay.
Back at camp I pulled all my wet, damp crap out and set it up/laid it out and with the sun fully out now, it dried out in about 10 minutes. I took a dip and put on some fresh clothes and was all of a sudden feeling like a million bucks and really glad I stayed in this night.
The rest of the day passed without event, except for the two guys that decided the best place to fish on all of Caribou Lake was 15' in front of my campsite, and sat there fishing for a good while. What the hell? I wasn't sure if they wanted me to invite them up for a coffee and a bagel or what was going on. Awkward. I'm glad they didn't catch any fish.
The site was also right across a short span of lake from another campsite which I could see and hear crystally clear, so the solitude I found at the beginning of the trip was predictably not in play on this entry point lake. I guess I was being eased back into civilization.
But I was content and treated to a seriously awesome sunset that I had a perfect view of from right in camp. That sunset was the universe rewarding me for camping a 4th night. A nice fire then off to bed in the now perfectly dry and not clammy at all tent.
I got up early and wasted no time breaking camp and shoving off, anticipating the long drive home on what was now the 4th of July. In a stroke of irony, as soon as I launched my boat from camp, a large family group paddled to the portage and beat me there....no idea how they all got up and packed that early, but there they were. I had to wait for them to move through the portage and basically followed them through both portages and Lizz Lake on our way to Poplar. They weren't actually that slow, but I hadn't met anyone on any portages this entire trip so I thought it was quite something that on my way out I got stuck behind a large group. Once on Poplar, I showed them what a solo with a kayak paddle can do and left them in the dust. ;-)
I showed up back at Rockwoods and Mike was surprised to see me so early - I think it was around 8:00. I explained how close I was camped to the Lizz portage and that I had 10 hours to drive and it made sense. I grabbed a shower, settled up with Rockwoods and off I went down the gunflint. Wife was happy to hear from me so early in the day and talked my ear off for 3-4 hours I think, which I didn't mind because it passed the time. A line of thunderstorms passed through the entire north country down through central Wisconsin on this day....I saw the huge black wall cloud in the west as I approached Duluth, and knew that meant it was going to be bearing down on Ely, the boundary waters and all the places I just camped very soon. And I was damn glad not to be out in it. I drove the entire length of it all the way down past Eau Claire though. From what I read, it didn't end up being an especially destructive storm, but there were some instances of high winds and hail that I've read in other trip reports from people who were in on the 4th.
Drove home in time to spend the night of the 4th with my family at a neighborhood gathering which was nice and unexpected. And thus my first solo came to a close.
All in all, it was a little bit of everything - challenging, fun, rainy, peaceful, lonely, scary, beautiful, emotional, thrilling....I could go on. Ultimately I probably prefer the group trips with my buddies and I should start bringing my kids as well, but this is a definite bucket list item I can check off now. I don’t regret it for a second and had an amazing experience.