BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 18 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1381 feet
Trout Lake - 1
First BWCA trip- Ensign - Solo
September 02, 2010
Number of Days:
The EP was just a few miles up the road. When I stepped out of the car to survey the boat launch, the rain stopped and the call of a loon greeted me. Cool, very cool. I've only seen loons once before. The second bird I heard was a bald eagle. What a wonderful way to begin my trip! I unloaded the car and packed the boat before the rain returned. Sweet- perhaps things would work out, after all!? Somehow I didn't get out on the water until 'bout 8:30 a.m. How is that possible?
Full of excitement, anticipation, trepidation, and wee bit of fear, I paddled north-- all by myself. The rain returned, but my new spray skirt and splash jacket kept me dry. The gloves were not waterproof, but they prevented blisters and helped retain some warmth. I kept checking the map and discovered it to be fairly accurate down to the small islands in Moose lake. I was reassured that I could easily track my location and progress on the map. I was passed by numerous tow boats (and a canoe w/2 DNR officers, post-script details at the end) but the trip to Splash lake went quite quickly- I was pleasantly surprised. There was no cell phone coverage anywhere I checked. Maybe I should have left the phone in the car.
First Portage- Kayaks are great, but packing them requires a lot more finesse than packing a canoe. I packed in multiple dry bags that I strapped to an external frame pack to portage. But, I hadn't done a trial run with loaded bags before I left home. After I strapped most of the gear to the frame pack I discovered I couldn't lift the darn thing onto my back. I vowed to pack lighter next time. So, it looked like my portages would be 5 trips- two with gear, one with boat, two return. Good grief! I'm really, really glad I planned a simple trip. It felt like it took a zillion attempts and 20 minutes to get the boat up onto the backpack, but up it went and off I strolled down the portage. The balance line worked like a charm and the boat rode quite nicely on the backpack frame. I managed to dump the boat off the pack, reload, and paddle off into Splash lake. I found my excitement building as I quickly paddled the length of little Splash Lake; just ahead was Ensign-- my home for the next 4 days! Splash Lake was small and the portage into Ensign was a simple stand up with one foot in the boat and one in the creek and walk the boat 10 feet. Easy!!!
Ensign! My eyes scanned the lake ahead for landmarks like “the narrows”-- an area recommended for walleye fishing. Excitement loomed ahead- adventures to come, but straight below the boat, I saw the major disappointment of my first BWCA trip. The water was full of some type of green algae. I found myself wanting to ID it, with visions of volvox- tiny green balls- an ocean of green balls flashing through my mind. I thought the lakes up here would be crystal clear. Did I have to put this stuff through my borrowed water filter? It would clog on the first gallon. Did the stuff go down three feet? Six feet? Twenty feet? Yikes!
The rain let up as I rounded a point on the SE end of Ensign. I said 'hello' to a couple in a canoe. They had caught a walleye and a bass that morning and in their wonderful southern accent, they recommended a beautiful little campsite just ahead. I ended up choosing that site over the one I was shooting for- it was a very pretty spot. After briefly exploring the trails leading out of the site, I returned to the campsite to come face-to-face with a grouse. We stared at each other for a few moments. Neat birds, neat sighting! With rain threatening again, I hurried to set up my rain shelter. It went up on the first try in the first spot! I am a rookie. Small successes must be celebrated!
Second order of business was to hang my sleeping hammock. There were two awesome gnarled trees anchored to the rocks at the point of the campsite- right next to the lake. What a perfect spot for my hammock! I seized the momentum of my first success and strung up the hammock in minutes, noting, but doing my best to ignore the claw marks on both the trees. I picked up a torn zip-lock bag from the rocks under my hammock, cursing messy campers and paying more attention to the instructions on the bag, than the unconventional way the bag had been opened. While stringing out the guy lines for my rain fly, I noticed a pile of … well... what I guessed must be bear scat. BUT, it was a really cool place to hang a hammock!
Next, I set to finding a place to hang my food bag. A rocky gully looked perfect, but after twenty minutes of failed attempts, I decided to look elsewhere. Before I left the gully, though, I noticed some potatoes scattered on the ground. As I returned to camp, I cast a serious eye at my hammock location: the two claw-scarred trees, the broken branch about 10 feet up, the waste below. I could no longer avoid the conclusion that I had hung my hammock the same place someone had previously hung a food bag, and the same location a bear had successfully procured a meal. Real smart, eh?
I return to the food bag problem and made attempts at two additional locations using two different methods. The question-mark shaped wooden rope-hanger-thingies I shamelessly copied from a link posted on BWCA.com, were fun to hang over branches with my kayak paddle, but I did not find a satisfactory location where the bag was elevated high enough off the ground on strong enough branches. As a last resort, I found a birch tree leaning out towards the lake. I hoisted a rope & pully and got the food bag nice and high off the ground. I wasn't 100% satisfied, because I could picture a bear walking up this leaning tree, pulling (or chewing) up the line, and getting all my food, but the day was slipping away and it was beginning to rain again, so I resigned myself to the fact that it was the best I could do today. Perhaps I could try something else tomorrow.
The rain dripping off my tarp was funneled into my empty water bag, the solar shower bag, and my water bottles. The borrowed, poorly reviewed, leaking Katydyn gravity water filter system would not be put through the torture of filtering green lake water on this trip. Rain water would suffice. NOTE TO SELF: buy an in-line Sawyer water filter to attach to the solar bag- maybe a Y tubing adaptor -- double-duty, eh?
The Blackbird hammock was quickly moved to a lovely circle of pine trees behind the campsite. My home-made Tyvek rain canopy was strung over the hammock. If you haven't had the pleasure of working with Tyvek, you should! You can glue on reinforcing tabs and punch holes instead of depending on metal grommets. It is the material that the slippery white first-class mailing envelops are made from. Tyvek is strong, light-weight, and when brand-spanking new, it sounds quite a bit like aluminum foil. Now, imagine your first night in the great outdoors of the northwoods. Imagine constant rain, pelting down on aluminum just inches from your head. I wished I had packed ear plugs! I was too tired - mentally and physically-- to cook. I think I had crackers and Nutella for supper then retired to the hammock at dusk.
Once the physical labors of the day were behind me, I realized my brain had very little to do other than to rehash all the bear stories I have ever read, including one about a polar bear entering a tent. Fortunately, the rain drowned out any and all forest noises, so reality did not interfere with my imaginary fears. After an hour of anxiety, I drifted off into sleep. I awoke in a minor panic at 4:20 a.m. when my sleeping bag brushed my cheek. No, it was not a bear sniffing me... it was not a bear, it was not a bear, it was not a bear...
Moose Lake, Newfound Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake
Day 2 was, as Winnie-the-Pooh would say, a blustery day. I tried to get a weather report on my NOAA weather radio, but I couldn't find a station. Winds and rain kept all sane people off the lake. After tending to mundane camp duties, I decided a day in camp was simply not for me- the slightest break in the weather made me realize yes, I am slightly insane. I suited up in my rain gear and headed out on the water. The two bays near me were calm, so I headed upwind in the bays, and let the swells carry me back downwind towards my camp. I did this loop many times, and tried to fish, with no success. The loons, however, seemed to be having plenty of success and kept their youngsters well fed. It dawned on me that every time I tried to fish, a loon showed up. I was quite hesitant to toss out fish hooks with loons diving and fishing in the area, but I couldn't seem to avoid them-- they were everywhere! Late in the day, I returned to a calmed-down lake and somehow managed to land a small-mouth bass! Tasty!
Night 2 The weather was breaking, and as dark fell, I retired to my hammock. I slept with a whistle and my headlamp around my neck. Yes, I was scared. I've always considered myself to have a healthy sense of fear, but tonight, I questioned “healthy”. It was quiet. Really quiet, and still. No wind. I heard nothing-- at least not for a few minutes. Then, slowly, as my ears adapted, I began to hear the slightest little noises from creatures in the forest, in the water, and at the waters edge. My imagination went wild trying to imagine the source of every little noise. Numerous times I warned the critters that there was a human in residence and to leave the camp to me! The headlamp flashed on many times pointing towards forest noises. My hands were on the zipper- in case I needed to reach out, rap on the Tyvek to make some scary, awful artificial noise. For the most part, however, the silence was deafening. Eventually, fatigue overcame fear and I drifted off to sleep.
Day 3 Was beautiful- sunny, moderate temps, and nothing to do but fish the lake. As I dawdled around the campsite, I noticed a merlin- he was perched right in my campsite! I couldn't help but feel a 'spirit' connection and wonder who was watching over me. The little birds were up in arms, making a racket of alarm 'chip' calls. The merlin didn't seem worried about me, so I figured I'd just sit and watch him as long as he cared to share the campsite with me. He was actually hunting- waiting for a small bird to cross one of the two small bays surrounding my campsite. Eventually the little bird racket hushed, and apparently someone did try to fly across the little inlet, because suddenly the merlin took off in a deadly serious, rapid flight.
I didn't have a darn bit of success fishing, but my fake little fishes got some good flying and swimming lessons. NOTE TO SELF: spring for live leaches next trip.
A pair of canoes with 4 young men landed at the campsite just north of mine. Voices occasionally carried to my camp reminding me that I was not really alone in the wilderness.
Night 3. After a day of sunshine dried things out a bit, I tried to make a small campfire. I'm really bad at campfires, but I got a small one going and actually stayed up a bit after dark. The sky was clear and, oh my, the stars were out. I had forgotten how the night sky is supposed to look. The milky way was pouring out of sagittarius on the southern horizon and spreading out across the entire sky. WOW. A few meteors and satellites caught my eye, including a pair of satellites traveling seemingly close together. There were so many stars I had a hard time picking out constellations.
Then the character of the night emerged. Tonight was to be animal night. As I was stargazing, I heard a howl, then a chorus of howls from north of the lake. A wolf pack! What a wonderful treat, especially since I could tell they were a good distance away. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I climbed into the hammock. Once I was settled in, it was obvious that it was going to be a noisy night. A snort reached out to my ears, but what kind? It was much higher pitched than the deer snorts I know from home. I expect a bear snort to be at least as low-pitched as a white-tailed deer, but is it? I wracked my brain, but could not come up with an educated guess as to who snorted. I imagined I heard a raccoon. I thought I heard branches pushed aside, footsteps, and then I heard a very large low-pitched c r u n c h, as a large, damp, rotten log gave way under a heavy load. Dang. Not much imagination required to interpret that noise. I told the bear I was here, it was my camp, and nothing was here for it. It was all bluff on my part. I was shaking in my socks. My head-light went on, my heart raced, and I rattled my hammock. It dawned on me that this hour after darkness fell was not my hour of power. It was when I felt most vulnerable- it became known as my “hour of terror”. I decided that there would be no night 4 at this campsite and I would probably clear out of BWCA the very next day.
NOTE TO SELF: Black bears are not out to eat the campers. They are out to eat the camper's food.
Day 4. I woke to frost. First thing I had to do, was check my food pack- it was right where I left it, hanging from the tree. WHEW! I broke camp, packed the kayak and headed out. As I passed the neighbor's camp, I noticed they, too, were leaving. I asked them if they heard the bear and they said it dragged their food pack into the woods and ate all their food. They hadn't hung their food pack because someone told them it wasn't always necessary. Silly fools. I wonder if folks like them are the reason there are bear problems at the popular lakes.
The day was breezy, sunny and full of potential. In the calm, peaceful light of day, I had a different outlook. I decided I would look for a campsite in Moose or Newfound Lake. I fished my way to the west end of Ensign, with just a nibble or two. I dropped my minnow in for a swim when I entered Splash Lake and almost immediately caught a strange looking fish. I hadn't a clue what it was, so I pulled my handy-dandy fish guide from my tackle box. The very first page had pictures of pickerels & pike. I'm guessing that it was a small northern pike. I released it and realized that at some point during the day, someone had eaten the tail off of my mimic-minnow. The tail was the best part! It would wiggle in a most interesting way as he 'swam' through the water.
In Newfound Lake, there was a gorgeous little campsite at the south end of a tiny island next to Horseshoe. A tiny island camp? I bet there would be far fewer visits by bears there. The bushes were full of yellow-shafted flickers and warblers dripped from the trees. I hung my food and set up my hammock without the rain-fly. I would have the stars as my roof tonight! I retired to the hammock with a knife, my whistle and my head-lamp. I don't know if it was the tiny island location, the knife, the lack of bear sign, or some combination of factors, but I felt far more at ease that night. I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
Day 5. I had food for at least 3 more days, and as the sun shined down on my beautiful little campsite, I briefly considered staying another day or two. Then I imagined what might happen if I didn't show up on Tuesday morning- I have no way to call and reassure them I'm OK and I didn't feel like I could take that much time off. I spent the morning fishing around Horseshoe and back towards Splash Lake. Around noon, I reluctantly let the wind and waves blow me south to EP 25 and back to civilization.
P.S. A week after my expedition I read a news story that may explain why I saw the two DNR officers on their way out. They had just paddled to Ensign to investigate a problem bear. Turns out 4 campsites had numerous reports about a problem bear. In the latest incident, it had bit a lady on her foot (did not puncture the skin) while she was in her sleeping bag. The DNR guys reported the bear was not the least bit scared by their efforts, and "absolutely needed to be destroyed." Apparently we have trained the bears that we are great sources of food.