BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 26 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1150 feet
Little Vermilion Lake - 12
LIS July 2004
August 12, 2004
Little Indian Sioux River (north)
Moose/Portage River (north) (16)
Number of Days:
This was to be an exciting trip. My younger brother, Kurt and my youngest son, Drew, 17 years old and I were taking a classic BWCAW trip in the Western reaches of this wilderness park. My younger brother flew in from Philadelphia on Saturday morning – I drove down to Midway Airport to pick him up – we got back – loaded the packs and my Sundowner and were heading North by noon. We stopped by the local Bass Pro shop to get him outfitted with a rod and reel.
Kurt and I were far enough apart I in age that we essentially weren’t kids together. I was off to college and though we had a good relationship, he was far too young to trip with me to my wilderness haunts. Since I was completely self taught (and at 50 I’m still learning every trip) he grew up with absolutely no camping, hunting, paddling or fishing experience. For me college led to graduate school, various job transfers around the country….. and frankly I’d gone for years without seeing him.
I had a lot to share with him and he was an eager student.
We drove up through Wisconsin, arriving in Duluth around dinnertime. We made the mistake of going to a Tex-Mex joint in Duluth. The quality of Tex-Mex in Duluth is average at best – duh! Surprisingly, we didn’t fit in very well with our Northwood’s gear – the locals and tourists seems to be far trendier with leather clad yuppie euro motorcyclists from the Twin Cities occupying quite a few of the seats.
We left Duluth and stayed at an absolute fleabag joint up Highway 61 for the night. But no Drew, we did NOT see any roaches!
The next morning we rolled out and headed up 61 to Silver Bay for a real local breakfast. Rain splattered down and temps hung around 58 degrees. Brrrr!
By 10:00 we were in Ely. We made our way to Piragis to get our permits and rental solo canoe. Bert was on the job and marked my map with some of his favorite campsites on our planned route. Kurt and Drew picked up some extra stuff as I assisted the help strap the solo onto my truck’s canoe rack.
We stopped at Scube’s Bait for a pound of leeches and our licenses. My brother and son amused themselves asking the proprietor if he also stocked canned corn to use as bait! “Corn!” he snorted and looked at them strangely. Details on this to follow.
Confession time. My entry was for a Monday entry – I discovered on the way up that my brother actually had to head back a day earlier than I had planned. The planned route was long and challenging – I unilaterally decided to go in 12 hours earlier than the permit indicated so we could make the route. Sunday afternoon found us loading our canoes on the Little Indian Sioux River North and pushing off.
The Little Indian Sioux is a placid river and Kurt quickly learned the basics of paddling from the bow seat of my canoe. The rain had stopped and the temps began to climb into the 70’s. The sun broke through as we paddled down the river.
The portages were a little rough. I hadn’t exercised my usual amount of ‘gear editing’ with Kurt joining us and between my excess stuff and his additional stuff – we were heavily loaded. My son felt that I had packed too little food last trip, so I did pack an extra day’s rations. In short, we were not going to be single portaging this trip.
We entered Upper Paulness Lake and paddled over to the short 8-rod portage. We saw our first canoe there up on the shore. We quickly and quietly unloaded our packs and headed over the short but steep and rocky portage. There sitting on the path were the owners of the canoe we had seen, eating lunch. I also happened to notice that they were Forest Service guys – only the second time in over three decades I’ve ever seen FS guys in the Park. I hustled past mumbling greetings.
The older guy, who was probably all of 25, got up, donned his official hat and in a perfect Northern Minnesota accent suggested that he may as well check our permit.
Yep, you bet.
Busted. I explained the situation, but the dates were the dates. He finished getting into full uniform as we chatted, the official tee shirt topped by the official long sleeved shirt. By the time I came across the second time, the metal clipboard was out and he said, with a trace of regret that he was going to have to cite me.
Ah well – at least he didn’t make me turn back. The citation was for $50 – he apologetically indicated that this was the lowest fine on the books – I signed and we loaded the canoes. The water at the portage had gotten murky as we kicked up mud and I lost sight of the sub surface rocks. With a full pack, I slipped on a rock and in slow motion crashed into the water. My brother and son were rolling with laughter at my expense. About this time I also remembered that I’d forgotten my glasses back in the truck – all I had were my prescription sunglasses. I decided that it would be too disruptive and useless to head back to get them – I’d just have to survive with my sunglasses.
We headed up Lower Paulness to the 216-rod portage to Shell Lake. The day had turned warmer and this is a long tough portage by any standard. Fortunately my son and brother are in good shape. I’m in fair shape for a 50 year old guy– but I had knee surgery 8 weeks earlier and that completely knocked me off my exercise program – but as the trip leader I wasn’t going to give any quarter in terms of the portages. We got leapfrogged across and paddled into a beautiful campsite on the very north end of Shell Lake’s Con Island.
Camp was set up and we soon dined on a gourmet seafood gumbo concoction with fresh tomatoes, peppers and lots of garlic, baguettes with butter and red wine.
Day Two -
We rolled out pretty early – I made eggs, bacon, hash browns and toasted bagels to go with the coffee and cocoa. We knocked down camp and paddled across Shell to Little Shell and Lynx. At the western shore of Lynx, we started our 260-rod portage to Ruby. This portage is rough and long. Rain had dogged us for part of the portage – which did help keep the air cooler. We leap frogged across but towards the end I realized that I had a near mutiny on my hands. My son and brother looked for the first time at the trip program I had mapped out and submitted to than last winter. They saw that this portage was to be followed by another long portage over to Oyster – we were to head north and the week would see quite a few more portages and at least two more at or over 200 rods. My brother indicated that this was supposed to be his vacation and this looked more like Parris Island boot camp. I pointed out that both guys had been provided the itinerary and maps last winter – but I was defeated. I told them that we’d spend this evening on Hustler and co-develop a new trip plan for the balance of the week.
Hustler is a pretty lake with several five star campsites. My brother learned that tough portages means few people… and we saw no one on Hustler. We made camp and I started a campfire on which to grill our steaks. We dined on steaks, instant mashed potatoes, and peas with butter.
Kurt’s previous fishing experience consisted of a couple of outings using oversized ancient hooks baited with canned corn trying to catch sunfish. My more somewhat aggressive fishing program of leeches and leadheads at dusk now replaced his historical approach.
We worked the shore as he was focused on catching a Northern at all costs. I’m not sure why a Northern, but I assured him that Hustler had them and I’d do my best to put him on the fish. At the witching hour as the sun slid below the horizon the action heated up. A large Northern slammed his leech tipped jig. He fought it for probably three minutes – as I realized that I hadn’t set the drag on his reel (or showed him how to use it) and certainly hadn’t instructed him on the nuances of working a big fish. The 8-pound line finally snapped when the Northern broke it near the canoe and headed off with our leech. I told him that in my book getting a Northern that large close to the boat and having him get off was actually a good thing – I’d usually rather not try and dislodge a hook from his toothy jaws in the dark anyhow. Nonetheless he was a bit disappointed. We switched to a Daredevil and caught several more on the way back to camp. He was jazzed – these were exciting fish!
We ate breakfast and broke camp as it started to drizzle. I glanced across the lake and saw a mother deer and a fawn playing in the shallows – by the way I saw quite a few deer on this trip.
We reached the 240-rod portage to Oyster – donned our ‘Kevlar helmets’ and started across. By the way 240 rods translates into just over a ¾ mile portage – so this was also a long and rough one. The canoes over our heads kept us dry and we again leapfrogged our boats and gear across to Oyster.
Bert had indicated a number of great campsites on Oyster, but we discovered the on two on the Western peninsula were occupied. We were again close to a major route and the number of people we saw bore that out. We reversed course and began to head across to the Eastern shore.
The West wind picked up and the rain started again. We quickly found ourselves surfing across. Visibility began to shrink as the rain picked up. My son was trailing in the solo but I began to have my hands full in the stern seat of the Sundowner. Our trim was clearly off with my 30 pound heavier brother in the bow seat and – aw shit – the packs had been loaded into the canoe in the wrong order – we were clearly bow heavy. The wind blew harder and the canoe kept trying to broach sideways – a move that certainly would have flipped us in deep water over a half mile from shore. I struggled to rudder us and paddle at the same time. My brother didn’t realize how much trouble we were in, but seemed annoyed by my moves to keep us on the straight and narrow path to shore. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that my able son was handling the weather OK, but his solo looked tippy in the following seas and white caps.
We headed for an arbitrary point on the eastern shore, landed in the crashing waves, leapt out of the canoes and hoisted the packs and canoes over the rocks to safety under some sheltering pines where we waited out the storm.
As often happens, the storm passed in 20 minutes or so and we headed back onto Oyster Lake to a campsite just north of the portage to the Oyster River. This was a really pretty site jutting out into the lake. We made camp calling it an early day. I broke out my fishfinder and confirmed not only the depth of this lake – 100’ deep came up quickly as we left shore- and I literally marked dozens of fish, which I assumed to be Lakers, hanging around at 70-80 feet down.
The wind shifted to coming out of the north, so I paddled the solo back to shore promising myself to hit this early the next morning.
We dined on steaks, mashed potatoes and veggies that evening as the north wind picked up. We turned in as the temps began to drop again.
It had probably dropped 15 degrees over night and I handed out the polar fleece vests to my brother as we drank our morning coffee.
I set up the fishing gear for deep water running and we headed out onto the lake with a drift troll parallel to shore. I played out my line to what I hoped would be putting the lures down at the right depth as we drifted in the breeze. Nothing hit – which I have to chalk up to the cold front.
We ate breakfast, broke camp and headed down to the portage to the Oyster River. My now revised agenda had us heading over to the American Agnes and up the Lac La Croix.
We reached the portage about the same time as another father and son team did.
My gear is well used but well maintained. None of my packs match, and we dress in practical north woods clothing topped by assorted hats. Over the years I’ve bought used packs from various outfitters and pieced together a system that works well for me.
We were however an interesting contrast to this duo. They had brand new matching packs, carefully loaded into their brand new and obviously feather weight Duralight
End of portage
canoe that looked like it was made from gossamer wings. Their completely color coordinated clothing – matching buzz off shirts and identical zip off pants – was topped off by matching sunguard broad brimmed hats with bugs nets that could evidently drop down easily to guard against the few mosquitoes present that day.
We politely let them land first and watched as they attempted to dry foot their way onto shore, their new Kevlar canoe grinding on the rocks. They lifted their packs out and left them laying in the middle of the landing as they dragged the canoe over the rocks and portaged it over.
We landed and briskly lifted our faded packs out of our canoes and began our way over this 60-rod portage. About half way we met them silently returning now with the bug nest fully down and gloves on. They didn’t respond to our trail greetings, looking for all the world like beekeepers on a secret mission.
We probably looked like Afgan army conscripts in comparison.
We made our way across and were soon paddling down the Oyster River in the sun and warming temps. The landing to the portage to Agnes is muddy and a bit treacherous. We again politely waited as the father and son beekeeper team landed and another large party from West Virginia who had appeared were allowed to precede us on this portage. I carefully stepped out of my canoe, picked up a pack and promptly sunk into the stinking muck with my left leg immersed up to my thigh.
This was going to be another long day.
The West Virginia guys joshed about – I hope – carrying cases of beer in their bulging packs. Their teenaged sons sat, evidently in either stunned or reverent silence, at the portage end. At least I assume they were stunned or reverent – anyhow they didn’t talk or show much emotion. They were all pretty well camouflaged against – well I guess against the loons and deer.
We soon reached Agnes and parted company with our portage friends, heading quickly across Agnes to the portage to the Boulder River. Soon we were on Boulder Bay and again found nearly all the campsites taken. Tiger Bay had several that we knew from previous trips were worth staying at – the only one available was back on the isolated bay that we quickly grabbed. This was a good, not great site, mostly because the sloping rock shore made getting into and out of the canoes complicated.
We made camp and started a fire.
We ate a dinner of brats wrapped in tortillas and my brother and I headed out of this shallow bay in search of his prize Northern. We nailed a hammerhead Northern by the rocks guarding our bay, landed and released him. I worked the shore, as my brother cast his leech tipped jig into likely Northern environs. We were quickly rewarded by a strike and battle was on. This time his drag was properly set and with a bit of coaching I soon had his 25” Northern in the boat. I carefully began to remove the hook – but he was hit with buck fever. He had to get a picture of this fish to show the folks back east!
I carefully slipped the fish onto the stringer and we returned to camp for the photo op. The fish cooperated, only flailing around a few times as my son squeezed off a couple of shots in the fading daylight.
The Northern – which I pointed out was probably below legal keeping size in Minnesota – was carefully revived and returned to the waters of Lac La Croix to hunt another day.
The revised agenda originally called for us to return to Agnes to then get out via the Moose River EP on Day six.
However we paddled out in the morning to catch a quick swim and discovered that my all time favorite site on Tiger Bay was empty. This five star site has it all. A sandy beach, a high rock promontory for pitching a tent and stargazing and lots of white pines for our tarp and bear bag.
I decided that we could easily make the Moose River EP in a day if we left early the next morning.
My brother and I left my son to hold the site and returned to last night’s camp to quickly pack and move to a better LLC address.
The new camp was quickly set and we adjourned to the beach to swim. We had a quick lunch and my brother and I left to visit Warrior Hill and the pictographs up on Irving Island.
We paddled the tandem up leaving my son to his reading in the tent. Warrior Hill didn’t disappoint with great views across this magical land.
Both my brother and I were a bit surprised to see the higher amount of motorized boat traffic up here. We saw a high powered government rig with dual Yamahas shooting down the lake – we saw a charter fishing boat probably operated by local Indians if memory serves me correctly – and in the distance saw what looked like a netting operation also operated by Indians. Nonetheless this is a big lake, and the pictographs – ancient Indian paintings created in iron based pigments and carefully placed in sheltered cliff areas were impressive.
As we returned I tied on a noisy buzz bait and let out a several hundred feet of line as I trolled it behind our speeding canoe.
We chatted as brothers do and worked our way the 2 ½ miles or so back to our camp. I’d almost forgotten the lure I was dragging, but as we approached the bay I saw that I had a fish on.
I began to reel him in. The problem with monofilament line when that much is played out is that the stretch in the line buffers you a bit from the fish. I cranked and cranked and the drag began to scream.
I tightened the drag a notch and kept steadily cranking it in.
Now as it approached the boat the fight really began. The rod doubled over and I carefully tightened and loosened the drag trying to wear the fish out. Ten minutes later I had the Smallmouth Bass on board. He ran almost 18”, not a record for these waters, but a nice fish nonetheless and certainly the biggest bass I’d ever caught.
We brought him back and invited him for dinner.
We rolled out early and my brother was eager to hit it and get out. I suggested that we finish off our cold rations of sausages, butter, with syrup and consolidate and balance our packs. We knocked down camp under cloudy skies and headed back to the Moose River EP probably 12-13 miles and seven portages away.
LLC was paddled, we reached Boulder Bay and were soon shooting across Agnes. My brother was struggling to keep up in the solo. We worked our way up the Moose to the end with out incident. For the record we took just under six hours to reach the parking lot from Tiger Bay.
However our truck was parked at the LIS North EP, some 9-10 miles away. I grabbed a water bottle and the keys and headed out to the Echo Trail to hail a ride.
This was not a good plan.
I walked the entire distance on the gravel road without seeing a single West Bound vehicle for almost four hours. I finally reached the truck, fired it up and drove back to pick the guys up back at the Moose River EP parking lot.
Back to Ely, return the rental, grab a room at the Paddle Inn, and dinner at the Chocolate Moose with a cold pitcher.. and life is good.
Back to the Chicago rat race the next day.
Lower Pauness Lake, Shell Lake, Hustler Lake, Oyster Lake, Agnes, Lake, Lac La Croix