BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
July 05 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1381 feet
Trout Lake - 1
Plans meet reality, 4 southerners visit the BWCA
June 20, 2017
Number of Days:
Our entire group had all spent time backpacking, so felt confident in our abilities to tackle whatever came our way. A few new pieces of gear were added to our communal gear stash, plans were evaluated and revised, some rental gear was dropped, some added, new fishing gear purchased. Time moved slowly forward, ever closer to departure day. And then pride perhaps got the better of me, I made a schedule change at work requiring me to work the 3 nights immediately prior to our 18 hour drive to Minnesota. This would be fine, I reasoned, I was going to sleep all day the on 18th and drive straight through the night to make it easier on the boys, the extra shift would just help me sleep better.[paragraph break] Down to just a couple of weeks before we left, clothes were treated with permethrin. One week left, gear started to move to the table to be organized and then the second bad decision, an incentive shift was available at work, a little extra cash would be nice, so instead of working the three nights before departure, I would be working four. Cue the ominous music. [paragraph break] Day of departure, two hours to go, super supportive girlfriend comes over and helps me madly throw gear into bins and throw those bins into the car with only the barest hint of "I told you working the four nights before we left was a bad idea." But we are loaded, plus one dog, and its off to pick up the boys, adventure awaits... [paragraph break]
I will spare you the monotony of the drive, suffice it to say that Alabama to Minnesota is a really long drive, sleeping in a car stinks, and in our opinion Greenbush Bakery was overrated. Oh, and while I tried to encourage the group to try cheese curds, they were very poorly received.[paragraph break]
Some back and forth on the merits of a trio plus a solo vs two tandems for our canoes, lashing canoes to the top of the vehicle, and the beloved video to watch and we were ready. A quick visit across the street for pizza and it was back to the bunkhouse to organize and get packed. This is when it was discovered that despite several reminders by a loving girlfriend, three of our sleeping pads were still under the boys bed at home, not doing us any good. Additionally, the gear that did make it is randomly distributed in three bins, 4 packs and loose in the car, frustration mounts. And so, it is at this point we paused, said forget an early start and left a scattered mess on the bunkhouse floor. 18 hours driving with no sleep had caught up with us, it was time for bed.
530 alarm, and the two adults awake feeling much more capable. A quick review of the mess left shows that we really aren't that far from being prepared to leave, but that sleeping pads will need to be rented while doing one last check of planned route with Jason. Plans made, we head to Brittons for breakfast. It was amazing, though I failed to mention the reported overly large portions, and we are left with a significant amount of pancake. The girlfriend, resourceful as ever, recognizes that we have exactly enough for a first mornings breakfast, so a box full becomes a baggie full, one less serving of oatmeal. The rest of the morning moves pleasantly along, last minute groceries bought, pads acquired, fishing spots marked, fishing licenses and leeches procured. Finally we pack and are off, hitting the EP at the not quite so early hour of 11 AM. It is here, loading canoes against a steady stream of paddlers returning that our hero perhaps got overanxious to get on the water and rushed us off the put-in. (An aside here, to the gentleman who felt so inclined to comment about our having everything but the kitchen sink, and to paraphrase an AT saying, paddle your paddle. I will admit to being a bit unorganized, and it turns out we were carrying a bit too much gear, but we did not interfere with you getting off the water, you were able to move with the practiced efficiency that we would later attain. Thank you for making our first actual BWCA interaction so pleasant and memorable. And to be honest I was carrying a kitchen sink, perhaps my favorite new piece of LNT gear.) As a result, we paddle out in two less than ideally balanced canoes. I paddle into a lush and beautiful scene to discover that girlfriend and younger child have managed to turn an 18' canoe backwards in a channel that only appears to be 12' wide. They are less amused by this observation, and want to know how we are going to fix this paddling dilemma. After an on water child swap, and a short tow, we reach enough solid land to properly rebalance boats.
And so we set off, finally paddling and enjoying some truly glorious scenery. Our hero prepares to begin navigating in earnest, putting the map at his feet and reaching for the compass to begin plotting the path to Horse Lake. "Baby," he calls, "Did you see the compass?"
She sighs, she bites her tongue and simply makes it clear that perhaps our intrepid group could use a reset. And so we make camp on Mudro, after less than 10 minutes of functional paddling. It is a glorious afternoon. The boys first feed many a leech to the fish population, and then our hero catches the first fish. Quickly the boys figure out fishing with leeches and more are caught. They are small, not walleyes and so unworthy of our shore lunch and Crisco, but we enjoy the afternoon. We also discover another reason not to keep what we're catching, we forgot to bring a stringer. Despite the setbacks this far, we are so grateful to be here. The day quickly catches up to us and we are early to bed, sleeping soundly under a less than dark sky.
An early night and a late morning makes for well rested campers. In short we feel good. We make coffee and discuss our options. Somehow we have set off without a compass but we feel confident that the simplicity of our route will allow us to navigate by geographic features. The skillet becomes the perfect pancake rewarmer, and we discover that Brittons pancakes are almost as good the second day.
As we prepare to set out, we take a bit more time and better plan our weight distribution, and thus we make good time across the short amount of Mudro that still lay before us. And so we reach what had been labeled for us Heart Attack Hill, but that we would be going down it on the outbound path. Encouraged by our quick paddle, the two adults hoist canoes and start the trek. Holy Crap. I have hiked with packs as heavy as 65 lbs. but nothing really prepared me for the awkwardness of carrying a canoe over a rocky, narrow trail. We double portage, the walk back and even the return with the pack being ever so much more pleasant, but this is what we signed up for, we are strong, we will master this.
And we're moving now, making quick work of Sandpit lake, and we hoist canoes for the half mile portage into Tin Can Mike. We make it, but spirits are a bit low, girlfriend is not a fan of portaging. After a quick lunch we start to load up. It is at this point that the boys hit their first obstacle, it can be really tough to get 150 yards from the water for a bathroom break, unlike in the forests we are more used to. I point out that there is a campsite very near on Tin Can Mike, and if they can just make it there, a bathroom break would be far easier. We head off for a pit stop. The older boy returns to the boats exclaiming the virtues of the spot. He slips seamlessly into real estate agent mode, attempting to sell us on this spot. The girlfriend is not hard to convince, it has one very important aspect; location that requires no more portaging for the day. And so we make camp. Two days and three lakes; we may not be setting a fast pace, but we are enjoying ourselves.
Fishing quickly commences, first from the canoe, but the boys quickly decide they prefer fishing from shore, so we return to the campsite. Lots of little bluegill and the older boy gets a bite from something larger. He exhibits more patience than has been witnessed in a long while and eventually lands a good sized largemouth bass. He is excited, despite the fact that there are bass galore back home, this is the largest he has caught to date. He wants to keep it, but I am determined that we will catch walleye, and so we return him. That evening we make a plan, we will forgo the more ambitious plan we had, and take a daytrip into Horse and up to Basswood falls and a chance to paddle to Canada, and spend some time fishing on the return. We feel that traveling light will keep us moving more efficiently, and we will make better progress than we had our first two days. With visions of the walleye swarming Horse, I get creative and some paracord and a little knife work later, we are ready for our limit with a homemade stringer. Plans and tools made, we crash early again.
We are not early starters apparently, but after some coffee, grits and oatmeal we set out at late morning with a daypack. Just lunch stuff, fishing gear and rainwear; we are traveling light, built for speed to ensure a successful mission to infiltrate Canadian waters. You can We quickly arrive at the portage into Horse. And the girlfriend hoists her canoe and makes it about 3/4 of the way. Older child brings the canoe the remainder of the way. Perhaps at this point we should have taken this as a sign of troubles to come, but we are determined and set off up Horse Lake. As we come around the first narrow and enter the long section of lake we encounter a stiff southern wind. The command boat, with the lighter child in the bow, behaves more like a paper boat in whitewater than a seaworthy vessel, being blown first to one side, then the other until we run ashore. We realize that despite spending a tremendous amount of effort, we have only travelled a short distance. Unable to make headway, and after a brief struggle with ego involving another attempt at progress, the expedition is halted, and we return to the point behind which there is calm water. We spend the afternoon fishing there, but have no luck. We're not sure if its time of day, or simply not a great location, but we head back to Tin Can Mike, slightly defeated.
However, youth being what it is, plans form on the paddle back to camp. An innocent request to the girlfriend to paddle closer to some cliffs so he could "see something." A few minutes later and his true purpose was revealed, we were going to witness some cliff jumping. A few minutes spent probing his landing area, and he was given the all clear. This might have earned me a few disproving glances from the girlfriend, but she was a good sport and paddled back to get a better view. Then we had to spend a few minutes finding appropriate sized rocks for the younger one to jump from, because nothing his brother does can go unmatched.
After we return to our camp, the younger boy asks to be ferried over to a point across from camp to try fishing. He and I head over. He quickly starts having luck catching small sunfish, and I move down the shore seeing if anything larger is lurking. A bit later another largemouth is landed. Contemplating giving up on my insistence on only eating walleye, I'm debating bringing this one back to camp when it gives a good thrash that surprises me, getting itself back into the water and settling the decision for me. It is at this point that I notice a freshening breeze and hear the girlfriend calling. Dark clouds are moving in on us quickly and I realize that while we are only 50 yards from camp, I made a severe error in leaving with no raingear for either of us. A slightly frantic paddle to return to camp, we miss the landing area in the strong wind. By the time we get turned around for another attempt, the brief rain shower has passed by, leaving calm water but a boy who would like to be off of it for a while.
So at this point we have determined that it really doesn't make sense to relocate camp as we only have one night left. Pushing further in seems silly to just retrace our steps the very next day, plus there is an even stronger wind, giving us little comfort that we would do any better anyway. And we have truly made ourselves a comfortable home, and we admit that we would be unlikely to set it all back up if we moved one or two lakes closer to our exit point. So we elect to stay put for a third night.
With that decision behind us, we move even slower than normal. Eventually I remember that I brought a basketball net to serve as an anchor, and convince the boys to give canoe fishing one more try, though this time with at least some chance of staying in one spot. They agree and we gear up. The anchor works great, and low and behold we catch our third largemouth of the trip. And this time we decide that walleyes be damned, we're having fish tonight. Unfortunately, that's where our luck ran out, and a couple hours later we head back. Pleased, but still wanting more. The rest of the day was a pleasant, relaxing blur, but eventually it was time to clean our fish and get ready to cook dinner.
The boys and I load back up and head back to the rock point just across from our campsite. We fillet the fish and I have a serious debate with myself about doing the right thing, but eventually break down and leave the carcass on the rock in clear view of the campsite. I had hoped we would see more wildlife, and while I knew moose was a longshot, had hoped we would see a bald eagle by now. So far we had seen and been sung to by a few loons, seen beaver swimming across the lake, and several turtles in the waters by our campground, but that had been about it. So we left a little bait, and hoped for the best. In the meantime, the girlfriend had built a solid fire and had sides cooking on the stove. It wasn't long after I had the frying pan on the fire that the first eagle made a high pass. It was replace quickly by squabbling gulls, and for a while I thought I had made a mistake. But then another eagle made a dive on our kill, and flew away with the remains. Now, I get baiting wild animals is a bad habit, and one that should not be encouraged, but it was so inspiring to see that eagle and we all got a thrill out of it.
It may not have been walleye, but the bass in Cajun shore lunch was a hit, and went so well with mashed potatoes. That night the rains came for real, and we went to bed, full, happy and slightly apprehensive about paddling out in the rain in the morning.
We woke to light rain, and realized that we had best take advantage of the lull and get ourselves in motion. In very short order we were packed, had rain gear on and were ready to paddle. We even had a hydroflask of coffee to keep the adults spirits up. No sooner had we pushed off shore than the skies opened and we were paddling in a deluge. While I wouldn't have wanted to spend a whole trip in this kind of weather, it was oddly beautiful, and brought a muted peace to the scenery. We reached Heart Attack Hill without incident, now practiced, efficient portagers, but there was still a little dread in the upcoming hill. I had agreed to carry both canoes for my two trips, if the girlfriend would manage my pack. She happily agreed, clear signs that despite loving the BWCA, we are still backpackers at heart. But the hill passed easily, prompting me to rename it Minor Palpitation Hill with Moderate Tachycardia. I also discovered one advantage to being the one carrying the canoe, you stay much drier under a canoe than in one.
And so we reached Lake Mudro, where we all noticed an eagerness to be done, which without a word turned into the great canoe race. It was our hero and the mighty but slight one vs the teenager and the girlfriend. They started with a lead, but we were gaining ground, our bow just inches from their stern. At some point I was reminded of a scene in a movie I couldn't quite remember, there is a mighty canoe chase, and I seem to remember it being tension filled and dramatic at the time. After our race however, it seems awfully silly, canoes are horrible choices for chase vehicles. Perhaps the paddlers in question were both more skilled and more powerful than us, but if I ever see that movie again, pretty sure I'm going to end up laughing during that scene at the absurdity of it. But all good things must end, and eventually we were back to EP 23, and just a few short steps from the car.
Prologue - Lessons learned and another long car ride
The original plan was to get quick showers and put a few hours of driving behind us for the trip home; however, the preceding 5 days caught up with a vengeance once we were in the car bouncing our way back to Ely, and new plans began to form. Perhaps a meal, a beer and a night in Ely, then an early start the next day would be preferable. Dinner was at the Rockwood Bar and Grill, where we finally had walleye. Was good, but I'm sure it paled to what it would have tasted like had we caught and cooked it fresh. The two for one beers were a nice bonus too. Another late start, a long drive but we eventually made it home. We're coming back eventually, wont be for a couple of years as there are other adventures to try first, but the BWCA is a special place and I'm so glad to have at least tasted what it had to offer. Oh, and the compass was in the hip belt pocket of my pack the entire time, never thought to look there.
So, you've never been and want to know a newbies thoughts on planning your trip:
PACK LIGHT! I'm a backpacker, I've weighed everything that goes in my pack. Not sure what my base backpacking weight is currently, but its right around 22 lbs so I know how to pack light. However, the allure of a canoe and its ability to carry extra gear is strong. Resist, its a mirage, and you will be so much happier on the portages if packs are light.
Rain Gear, get quality stuff. It will rain on you, and there is no reason to let that fact ruin a trip. In that vein, quick dry clothes for the same reason.
Bugs - Do not let the fear of them spoil your plans. We did treat our primary outer layers and carried 30% DEET, but they were never more than a mild nuisance.
Ely is a fabulous little town, plan to spend a little time there on one end of the trip or the other. We honestly wished we had built in one more day to just enjoy what it had to offer.
Most importantly, just go. It's such a treat to have been there and experienced it, no picture or words will ever do the trip justice. The outfitters will help you with anything you may need. Go, get outside!