BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 29 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1406 feet
Crab Lake & Cummings Lake - 4
EP 4 3 day trip
May 25, 2012
Crab Lake and Cummings from Burntside Lake
Number of Days:
The group arrived in 2 cars at Voyageur North outfitters just past 1 AM. 15.5 hours of driving had left everyone well spent and ready for sleep. Even leaving 2 hours later than expected we made excellent time, almost too good. 4 hours of car napping awaited.
Promptly at 5 the lights flickered inside the outfitter store. The six of us, groggy yet full of anticipation, spilled out of the 2 cars and sauntered towards the gas stations/convenience store next door. I like Clif bars a lot, but this morning the chocolate chip variety hit the spot particularly well.
Partially satiated I signed our permits and release forms as the rest of the group milled about the store. We all sat down and watched the 'leave it as you found it' video, planned out our route, and stared begrudgingly at the overly large pile of packs arranged in front of us. 20 minutes later we piled into the VN suburban, boats and gear in tow, and headed for Burntside Lake.
It had been windy since we arrived in Ely. Despite our plans to the contrary, we payed for a tow across the big lake to our entry point. Our driver/tow operator split our gear and group in half and completed his task in 2 parts. Arriving at EP 4 first with the girls (Erika and Brittany) I pulled on a green Duluth Pack and awkwardly heaved one of the kevlar Minnesota II canoes on my shoulders. A mile of unknown portage awaited.
A mere two or three hundred yards in the relatively light weight of the canoe was making its presence known on my shoulders. I eased off to the side and rolled the canoe to the ground. Adjustment to the shoulder pads would be key the rest of the way. Now steadied I found my groove and ground out the rest of the portage, slogging through the low places and powering up the hills and rocks. I had made good time and was feeling good. I decided to run back to meet up with the rest of the guys (Aaron, Jon, and Kyle). I passed the girls as they crested their last hill and let them know they were almost there. Finally 2/3 of the way back to Burntside I found the guys. They were well saddled with one canoe and a handful of packs. Kyle looked like an overworked sherpa, mounted up with 2 personal packs and a large grey Duluth pack. I took 2 off his hands and started back to Crab.
10 minutes later the whole group was together on the Crab end of the long portage. Myself (Alex) and Kyle would take one vessel (from now on known as Team Water Buffalo). Aaron and John (Rhino), and Erika and Brittany (Gazelle) would take the other 2. Nearly immediately upon setting off into the windswept water it became apparent that we were dealing with a different scale than we were used to back in Ohio. Outside of Erie most of the inland lakes are man made, the largest aren't that much bigger than Crab if at all, and then they are dominated by motor boats. This was a different ball game. What looked like a short distance on our maps and in our minds was suddenly a half a mile or more.
Once our bearings and our sense of scale found us we began to make headway. After battling the wind we found our way to our first portage to Saca Lake at the southwest portion of Crab. It was immediately apparent that venturing to the smaller lakes of this entry point was taking us off the beaten path. The portage was much less traveled than the main one from Burntside. Downed trees abound. We trudged our way across to Saca, loaded back up and made the short paddle across to the Hassel Lake portage. Slightly shorter than the previous one at 80 rods things weren't quite as rugged, moss and wet places, one downed tree.
A quick jaunt across Hassel left us looking at what we were pretty sure was our portage. It was a mess relatively speaking. Rocky, downed trees, wet holes, and longer at 140 rods. By this point I was feeling just what my adrenaline fueled first portage speediness had left me; next to nothing. We were now two tripping and lining in the canoes. 140 rough rods 4 times over. The best part of this particular experience was witnessing our only evidence of moose we'd see the whole trip. Many unweathered tracks marked the trail.
Finally, we'd reached the day's destination; Battle Lake. A decent sized lake of seclusion. One well placed campsite was perched on a rocky point a short paddle from the portage. We found the latrine, set camp, took in the view and relaxed.
The morning started cool, high 30's. The weather back in Ohio this holiday weekend was to be in the mid 90's, so this was actually quite refreshing. I was up early, just before 6 AM. Luckily enough, the cool air was still rolling off the land over the relatively warm water. That beautiful low morning fog just over the water was forming with a bright blue sky overhead.
After a breakfast of pancakes and a quick camp breakdown, we were on our way. Our first task for the day was a portage to Phantom lake. This presented the only navigational error of the trip. Finding the portage, and even Phantom was easy enough, the portage was flat, dry and short. But, we could have skipped Phantom all together and simply gone to Sprite Lake straight away. All we had to do was explore the fork in the portage. Having found ourselves back on essentially the same path we just took, we made our way to Sprite. After yesterday's encounters with debris strewn portages we decided to make an effort to make things easier for those who would follow us. The short portage to Sprite would be the start of that. Two trees, one relatively large, blocked the path substantially. Jon and Aaron made quick work of them with the saw provided by VNO while the rest of us staged the gear and canoes.
Once the portage clearing was done the group was onto Sprite. A handsome little lake really. The water was almost like a well steeped black tea, the concentration of tannins being higher in the lower volume lake. A very quick journey across its small surface brought us to the Meat Lake Portage. The portage itself was nothing spectacular, a relatively clear, rolling ordeal through more mature pines. What lay to the side however would foretell what Meat Lake had to offer.
Beavers, loons, and one deer had been the only wildlife we had actually put our eyes on during the trip. Our groups size no doubt played a role in that. It was the beavers that made themselves most obvious though. Not just the gnawed stumps and piled wood, but what that tedium can do to a body of water. Arriving at the end of the portage to meat lake one passes a series of small beaver ponds and dams, capped by one large dam. This work of civil engineering had reduced Meat's inflow to nearly a trickle, and its water level showed the consequences. Depths had dropped 6 to 10 feet from what appeared to be the normal levels. This is quite significant in a lake whose max depth was 20 feet previously. A small carry over portage had been created by the low water levels leading into the the last lobe of the lake (normally 5 feet).
After finding our way across what was left of meat lake we were presented with the short (48 rod) portage to Clark Lake. We made the trek with relative ease despite the weight of packs and canoes beginning to have their effect on us. We paddled a short distance and took advantage of the campsite landing for a lunch of PB&J. The end of lunch brought a quick exploration of Clark lake by Erika, Brittany, Aaron, and Kyle. Jon and I took some time to relax on shore for a few minutes. Slightly rejuvenated we made the paddle directly across the lake to the days longest portage; back to Crab.
Despite having been in and out of the boats all day with the smaller lakes traversed, we decided to single trip the 130 rods. Though not terribly rocky this would be our most technical portage of the day. Once out of the water we were greeted quickly and harshly by a steep climb. My tanks were empty immediately. Luckily Kyle was in a good rythm and could keep me going. We stopped a couple times to rearrange packs, affording enough time to regain some mojo. Finally, with one last awkward steep decent we were back at Crab, not much more than a stone's throw from where we exited the same lake a day before.
Back on a larger body of water the long paddle to little Crab provided some time for recovery and reflection. Two families had made it out onto the lake for the weekend, the only people we would see the whole trip. It was refreshing to take in the fact that we were indeed 1000 miles from our normal day to day. Be it farming, nursing, running, or simply going to class, this was break for all of us, despite its strenuous nature.
In good time we made the very short, very groomed portage to Little Crab. A couple paces and we were on the water again. We paddled long and steady, with the occasional stop just to look and be quiet. At last we reached the short and wet portage from Korb to Cummings. We had been told of wolf activity in this area before we set out, we would see our only evidence of such in the form of fresh scat at the portage terminus.
Back on expansive water our 3 vessels spread out. Gazelle and her light load found herself well ahead, Rhino was better than a quarter mile afield to the west, and Water Buffalo chugged up the rear, fully laden.
Finally, tired from a day of paddling and portaging we reached our campsite at the northeast end of Cummings. We had landed the prime real estate with a 5 star campsite. Aaron and Kyle took some time to fish, somewhat successfully, while the rest of us set up camp and got to work on dinner (lasagna and berry cobbler this night). As light grew dim and the fire found itself extinguished we were quickly asleep. Light rain started to fall.
What had started as not much more than a sprinkle the night before had become a straight, hard rain by morning. A sparse clap of thunder accentuated the wetness. A small break in the rainfall gave just enough time to break down camp and make a quick breakfast of sandwiches. No time for cooking and dishes this morning. As we said goodbye to our site and pushed off into the water the wind drove a heavy mist into our faces.
Our sextuplet made its way back to the meandering Korb, into Little Crab, and back onto the larger main Crab Lake. We were, so far, making good time. Stopping for a quick snack after the quick portage from little Crab.
We had decided from the outset that we only wanted to do the long portage from Burntside once, so we were going to try exiting via Crab Creek. We knew it would be longer in terms of time, but we just didn't want to haul everything on our backs for a mile.
The first leg of Crab creek starts wide, then tapers quickly after going over a submerged bridge. The ease of the route quickly ceases at the carry/push over for the first beaver dam. While Korb can be meandering at times, Crab Creek bends fully back on itself in quick succession. Two boats 10 feet from each other pointed in opposite directions, separated by a thick blanket of sedge and bog.
Not long after the beaver dam the group finds itself at the first portage around a long rapid/shallow water fall. The path is slick and tree strewn, the bodies are tired. The end of this portage is the only point in the trip in which it seems people are at their limit. We've been spent before, this was flirting with exhaustion. As we plop down on the soft mound of grass and pine stover the food bag comes out; PB&J and some cookies once again rescue our spirits.
We continue our twisting route through calm water surrounding by bog and beaver artifacts. After much practice at about face turns we find ourselves at the last real portage of the trip. There is a sense of tired goofiness about the group now. The fatigue doesn't matter anymore, the wet is long from our minds, its just about covering the distance. This strange sense of eagerness brings about some overzealous acts as well. Coming out of the water Water Buffalo finds its self with a water logged stern; a quick haul out with the rear person still in place can have this effect. Good natured, its good for a hearty laugh from all.
A couple trees cleared and gear hauled we make the last few turns on Crab Creek and reach the open expanse of Burntside Lake. Its definitely taken longer than the portage, but we are happy with our choice.
A handful of trail mix for each of us and we set out across the wavy water. Facing a headwind the landmarks on the far eastern shore seem to take forever to grow in size. At last we clear Waters Island, hug the shoreline and make it to the take out. We've covered 25 miles of paddling and portage in 2.5 days.
There is a sense of accomplishment and bashful relief from everyone. This is nothing like high level competitive running, this is nothing like white water. This is something completely different for all of us. In the grand scheme of things our trip was a pittance compared to what other people do every day on the Boundary Waters, but for us it was a rare glimpse into a different world, far from home and our normal conventions.
A hot shower and soft bed at VNO, a full meal at the Ely Steakhouse, and 18 hours of driving await.