BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 16 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1381 feet
Trout Lake - 1
Quest for fish and fun
June 25, 2006
South Kawishiwi River
Snake River (84)
Number of Days:
After driving through the night from Grand Rapids, Mich., we arrived in Ely around 3 p.m. We checked in at Piragis, bought our fishing licences, etc., and headed to a hotel, where we crashed for a few hours. My friend Rob and I were watching SportsCenter when my brother, Derek, woke up out of a dead sleep, looked at the clock, which read 6:15, and sprinted for the shower. Two minutes later, he was out of the shower and waking up the fourth member of our group, Eric, who said he just wanted to go back to sleep. That pushed Derek over the edge, and only then did we realize that he thought it was 6:15 a.m.; we were supposed to meet our outfitter at 6 a.m. the next morning. Amazing what a 14-hour drive through the night will do to your mind. After a good laugh, we headed out to Cranberry’s for dinner and met bartenders Crack and Sarah, who were awesome. Then we headed to The Portage bar for a few more beers and some pool before turning in for the night.
We were up by 5:30 and dropped off at our entry point, No. 32, South Kawishiwi River, by 7 a.m. The 147-rod portage was much easier than expected, we double-portaged and had no problems. The mosquitoes were terrible by the trail head but not bad once we got to the water. We loaded up the two We-no-nah canoes and shoved off into the South Kawishiwi. My first impression was how stunningly beautiful and pristine the landscape was, and that was an impression that lasted with me throughout the trip. It was a cool, overcast day, with scattered rain throughout the morning and early afternoon. We immediately headed southwest to a set of rapids, beached the canoes and took our first few casts of the trip. Derek lost a nice pike on his first cast, and I had a big smallmouth throw my jighead after a spectacular jump on my first offering. Nice way to start off the trip. We could have fished this spot for a while, but were eager to get a few miles under our proverbial belt, so we quickly headed northeast. There’s a short portage over a set of rapids an hour or two into our paddle that again offered some pretty good fishing. I tied on a small while Beetle Spin and had probably five smallmouth on in maybe 6 or 7 casts, but again, we were anxious to keep moving, so we pushed off and followed the river as it bends to the east. We had been told of a nice campsite on a peninsula facing south just before the river turns back south, and that spot was open, so we pulled in and set up camp. After a quick lunch of peanut butter pitas, we hooked up our portable fish finder and went out looking for walleyes. We never found them that night, but did get into quite a few pike, with orange inline spinners taking the most fish. Around 6 p.m. we heard thunder in the distance, and before we could contemplate heading back to our camp, we were slammed by the fiercest rain I’ve ever witnessed. It rained so hard, we could barely see the shore 20 yards away. It looked like a scene out of CBS’s “Survivor.” We abandoned our attempts to catch walleye and put all our emphasis on finding our way back to camp, which we did. Amazingly, the three-inch-deep streams of water pouring down from the higher ground wound around our tents, and after about 90 minutes, the rain let up, and we thanked God that our packs and tents had somehow remained dry. With no fish to eat, we enjoyed a meal of Spam and Zatteran’s rice. Nobody believed we could get a fire going because everything was drenched, but I’m generally considered the fire master, and proved my worth by dragging a big dead rotting log into camp. We used our Gerber camp axe to chop the log into 2-foot sections, then split these sections into small pieces. The wood was soft and dry on the inside, and within minutes we had a roaring fire going. It was the saving grace for an otherwise drab evening.
We were out to catch fish, and since we hadn’t found much the first day, we decided to break camp (we had considered base camping here) and heading for greener pastures. A quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee/hot chocolate got us going, and as we took to the water, we were greeted by a stunningly beautiful day. Rain jackets were traded for suntan lotion as we headed toward Little Gabbro Lake. We considered taking the 122-rod portage, but decided instead to to around and take the two small portages shown on the McKenzie Map. Big mistake. Sure, we hammered the pike and also caught some nice smallmouth, and our first walleye, in the rapids just west of the main portage. But after taking the first small portage, we found another one not marked on the map. The water was too shallow to canoe across, so we ended up with another portage that was 10 times tougher than what we had expected, stumbling over exposed tree roots that were suspended a foot off the ground while trying to step over logs that were 3 feet higher still. Once we got through this portage, we had another small carry around a little dam, and even past that, the water was too shallow to canoe, so we had to walk the canoe up the river, all the while fighting to keep our footing on the slippery rocks that always managed to roll when you put your weight on them. Of course, the leaches swimming past our ankles just added to the charm. We got into Little Gabbro much later than we had anticipated because of the added time it took to get through the portages, so we didn’t spend much time here. We made a few casts, but mostly pushed right through to Gabbro Lake. We began looking for an open campsite, and didn’t find one until we were two-thirds of the way down the lake. We found an open site on the southwest shore, on a small peninsula, looking southeast. This was by far the best site of our trip: a sandy landing spot, a very gradual rocky slope going down to the water, and a rock table set up waste-high for cooking, etc. We had kept several pike and a walleye for dinner, so after setting out our tents, rain flies, etc. to dry from the previous night, we had a nice dinner of fish and Zatteran’s. We also mixed up some tang and Captain Morgan’s Parrot’s Bay coconut rum, which was great, even lukewarm. After a long day, we didn’t last long, into the tents by 10 p.m.
Since we were going to keep this site for the night, we relaxed in the morning, made pancakes to go with our coffee/hot chocolate, then headed out fishing. The new hot bait was a 5-inch white Senko, worked across the top of the weeds, then dropped down, where the pike would come up and slam it. We worked our way to the end of Gabbro Lake, over a tiny portage around some rapids and eventually into Bald Eagle. I had read on this forum that Turtle Lake is the best pike-fishing lake in the area, so with visions of monster northerns dancing in our heads, we tackled the miserable portage to Turtle Lake. It wasn’t worth the effort. Maybe we were there at the wrong time of the wrong day, but we didn’t have a single hit in about 2 hours on Turtle Lake, and didn’t see much that convinced us the fish were there. Dejected, we headed back out to Bald Eagle, then fished our way back to camp. A pair of beavers checked us out for a few minutes before slapping the water and heading down. We caught quite a few more pike and one more walleye that night. Dinner was Ramen noodles and foil pack chicken, yuck. Not as appetizing as it sounded when we were planning our meals. We should have stuck with just the noodles and left the chicken at home. Even with some seasoning, it was nasty. A beautiful day came to a close with the four of us laying on our backs on the smooth rocks, gazing at the stars and the fireflies while the time slowly melted away.
We were up early and broke camp, with intentions of making it to the end of Bald Eagle Lake in time to find a good campsite. Of course, that’s when we started catching the walleyes that had eluded earlier in the trip. We found a couple nice drifts at the south end of Gabbro Lake, just out from the island campsite. The leaches we had hauled around for several days finally paid off, and I pulled a fat 19-inch walleye out of the water just as Derek was landing another keeper. Then we started catching huge crappies along with the walleyes. The action was fast and furious, and at one point, I had just put one big (13-inch) crappie on the stringer and was grabbing one off Rob’s line when it flopped and fell off the hook. I instinctively grabbed for the fish, at the same time letting go of the end of our stringer, which in super-slow-motion slipped over the side of the canoe, hung tantalizingly just out of reach for about 2 seconds, then disappeared into the depths. There goes lunch. Luckily, the other boat had a few walleyes on their stringer, and we caught a few more, enough for a great shore lunch on the rocky rapids between Gabbro and Bald Eagle. There we met a family of five, including three early teenage kids, that had come from the other way, had been there for almost a week, and hadn’t caught a single fish yet. The dad and son had tried to ride down a set of rapids, tipped over, gotten banged up, and nearly trashed their canoe in the process. While we were talking to them, their 12-year-old daughter went running along the rocks, slipped and went crashing into the water. Luckily it was about 3 feet deep so she came out without getting hurt. We offered them some fishing advice and gave them some of our more successful baits to try. They were very grateful. I can’t imagine going someplace like that and not being able to catch fish, so hopefully our advice helped. We got into more walleyes on the other side of the rapids, caught enough for dinner, then tackled Bald Eagle Lake. I’d heard this can be tough if the wind’s wrong, and it was wrong for us. After blowing out of the west the previous several days, the wind was out of the east just in time for our crossing, so we had 1-2 foot waves and a serious headwind to deal with. It wasn’t what I would consider fun, but we managed, and found the two campsites at the southeast corner of the lake open. Neither were great sites, so we chose the site farthest south, figuring it was more open and would offer a nice breeze to keep the bugs away. Go figure, this was our buggiest night of the trip by far. But before the bugs could get to us, we went fishing. Anxious to try something new, I looked through my small tackle box for the hundredth dime and, for the first time, pulled out a black buzz-bait and tied it on. Two or three casts later, a small pike erupted out of the water and slammed the bait. This was the start of perhaps the most exciting 3 hours of fishing of my life, and that’s saying something. In that time, fishing the bottom part of Bald Eagle Lake and the first several hundred yards of the Isabella River, I probably had 80 to 90 fish hit – basically every 2 or 3 casts. And they didn’t just hit once. I’d throw the bait onto the grassy weeds that lined the shore, and pull it quickly to the open water. Once it hit that open water, hold on tight. The pike would follow it from under the weeds, then slam it as soon as it started gurgling across the surface. Most of the time, they’d miss on the first hit, and on the second and third. If I hadn’t hooked them by the time the lure reached the canoe, I’d usually see them lurking down below, ready for another attack. No problem. Throw it back out 10 feet and they’d be right back at it. I probably caught 35 pike, none of them over 30 inches, but most of them fairly solid 20-plus, with a few hammer-handles thrown in. Rob, who spends most of his time fly fishing for trout, didn’t have a buzz bait to try, and while he didn’t get into the same number of fish I did, still had a blast, especially when he hooked into a 19-inch smallmouth. That bad boy gave Rob the battle of his life. That night, we enjoyed walleye and pike, along with the customary Zatteran’s rice. The mosquitoes were terrible, the first time in our trip that they really bothered us. We ate dinner with our head nets pulled down to our upper lips. Finally, after we got a nice fire going, the mosquitoes quieted down a bit. We finished off the Tang and Parrot’s Bay, then moved on to Jack Daniels and lemon aide, which really hit the spot. Throw in a nice cigar and the mosquitoes weren’t really bothering us any longer. That night, trying to hurry into our tent to avoid the bugs, the zipper on the rain fly got stuck. We had talked to a group that had just come in earlier in the day, and they said it was supposed to be nice for the next few days, so we didn’t worry about it, until the thunder woke us up around 2:30 a.m. Then I was out in the dark, with the thunder and lightening putting on quite a show, trying to get the zipper fixed. Finally, after about 10 minutes of tinkering, we got it right (our tent, a Sierra Designs, just had a mesh door, so without the rain fly completely zipped down and staked in, we were in trouble). The storm hit us pretty hard, but we stayed dry.
Day 6: Everything was soaked, so we took our time packing up on our last day in the Boundary Waters. We didn’t have far to go to our exit point; we were to meet Travis from Piragis at 4:30 p.m. at exit point 84, Snake River. We didn’t get into the water until noon, and with a stiff west wind, we had to drop anchor just to slow down our progress up the Isabella River. The buzz bait was again the champ as I had maybe 30 more hits over the next few hours as we meandered toward Snake River. As we got there, Eric hooked into a monster smallmouth, which gave him everything he wanted before he landed it and measured it at 22 inches. It was by far the biggest bass he had ever caught, so he and Derek got out of their canoe to take a bunch of pictures. That put us behind on our timeline to get out by 4:30, but it didn’t look like we had too difficult a task ahead of us. If only we knew. Snake River is a tiny little stream, and we followed the turns on our map, making sure we knew how far we had traveled. We reached the first 62-rod portage, right where we thought it should be. It was a steep up-and-down portage, and we put in on the other side, in a small pond. The problem was, we couldn’t find where the pond continued on to the next 34-rod portage. We poked around for maybe 10 minutes, and couldn’t find any sign of a stream leaving this pond. We dropped off Eric, who found a path leading in the right general direction of where we were heading, so he followed it. We expected him back in 5 minutes,10 minutes max. Twenty-five minutes later, we were getting worried. Suddenly he comes panting down the trail, his face white. “If that’s a portage, it’s the longest portage ever. I ran all the way back, and I didn’t get to the end!” Great. It’s almost 4:30, and we’re stuck. We did another quick sweep and couldn’t find a stream that would get us any closer to our exit point, so we pulled the canoes back out of the water. We didn’t have time to double-portage, since we weren’t even sure where the trail led, so we shouldered our packs and carried the canoe right-side-up down a glorified game trail. We stopped every few minutes to check our compass, and it appeared we were heading in the right general direction, but all four of us were starting to get uneasy. At 5 p.m., we began to wonder how long Travis would wait for us. Knowing that time was against us, we finally ditched our canoes, which were really slowing us down, and picked up the pace down the trail. We suddenly came to a small clearing, where the trail ended. On the other side of the clearing was a much more well-used trail, which we guessed (with fingers crossed) was the 198-rod portage out to the exit point. With no other options, we half-walked, half jogged down the trail, sweating profusely in the heat, with head nets doing little to keep the mosquitoes and flies out of our faces. Finally, just after 5:40, we came over a small hill and saw the unmistakable glint of sunlight on a windshield. Travis jumped out of the van and was as excited to see us as we were to see him. He had gotten lost coming out to the portage (he had never been there before). Plus, on the sheet, we were listed as coming out at 75, Little Isabella River, but that was crossed out and 84 was scribbled in instead. Travis had been bouncing back and forth between the exit points, hoping to find us. Thank God he was still there, because there was no way we would have gotten out of the woods that night if he had left. We dropped our packs and started to head back for our canoes when Travis stopped us. “You guys want a cold drink before we go?” he asked, grabbing a cooler. Little did he know he could have made a lot of money that day. We would have paid an arm and a let for anything cold at that point. We retrieved our canoes, lashed them to the top of the van, and settled in for a drive back to Ely that lasted nearly an hour after Travis got lost again trying to find his way out of the labyrinth of back roads. A shower at the bunk house was amazing, although we had taken a few dips in the water during our trip to shed layers of bug dope, sun screen and general grime. Then it was back to Cranberry’s for dinner and beers with our friends, Crack and Sarah, before starting the long drive back to Michigan.
A few observations after my first trip to the Boundary Waters:
Shoes: I’ve read hundreds of conflicting opinions on footwear. Three of the four guys in our group wore Keen H2’s, and they were almost perfect. We didn’t every worry about keeping our feet dry. Once we got near shore, it was out of the canoes, and the Keens were fantastic. Great traction, in the water and on the portages, great foot support, extremely comfortable. How comfortable? I wore them the entire trip, in the shower at the end of the trip, and on our 14-hour ride home. The only downside is that sometimes a small rock would slip in between the webbing and settle between your foot and the footbed, which isn’t comfortable. And since the Keens fit so snug to your foot, it’s not easy to get those rocks out.
Clothes: I know, I know, no cotton clothes. Well, I did wear cotton shorts the first day, and they got drenched. They never dried out the entire trip. On the other hand, my nylon packable shorts that I wore the rest of the trip were fantastic. Get them wet, and in five minutes, they’re dry again. Do not wear cotton clothes, not shorts, not T-shirts, nothing. You don’t need Nike or Under Armor, just go buy cheap quick-drying moisture-wicking T-shirts and shorts. I wore a Gander Mountain long-sleeve nylon fishing shirt the entire trip, it was light enough to be comfortable even on the hot days, and kept my arms protected from the sun.
Packing light: We tried to pack light, but we certainly didn’t leave any necessities behind. We each had a pack, plus a food pack and another small backpack for cooking supplies, etc. We double portaged, so this worked out great. For those of you planning a trip, be smart, but don’t deny yourself things you really want.
Our route: I would recommend this route to people who haven’t done it, but I don’t think I’d do it again. We saw a lot more people than I expected. I would prefer a more secluded trip next time, where we paddle hard for a day to get away from the people and into bigger fish. We caught a lot of fish, but were disappointed we didn’t get into bigger fish. Our largest pike was 31 inches and our largest walleye 19 inches. Not bad, but certainly not trophies. I’ve caught larger within 5 minutes of my house in Michigan.
Savor every moment. I’ve been on a lot of trips where, by the end, you’re ready to be done. I never got to that point on our trip to the Boundary Waters. If not for my wife, my 3-year-old daughter and my 2-year-old son waiting at home (not to mention a boss who begrudgingly let me escape my job for a few days), I could have gone another week, no problem.