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December 09 2023

Entry Point 12 - Little Vermilion Lake

Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) entry point allows overnight paddle or motor (Unlimited max). This entry point is supported by La Croix Ranger Station near the city of Cook, MN. The distance from ranger station to entry point is 45 miles. Enter from Crane Lake. Note: Not the entry point to use for Trout Lake (#1)

Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1150 feet
Latitude: 48.2995
Longitude: -92.4268
Little Vermilion Lake - 12

Stormy September - Namakan-Loon River Loop

by muddyfeet
Trip Report

Entry Date: September 12, 2018
Entry Point: Little Indian Sioux River (north)
Exit Point: Moose/Portage River (north) (16)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 1

Trip Introduction:
My September 2018 trip was 3 days of solo travel before meeting a party of 4 good friends for 3 days of basecamping. The solo portion began at LIS entry in the BWCA before traveling the Namakan river to skirt Voyageurs national park, then returning to the BWCA via the Loon river. I had trouble finding a detailed description of the river, so I wanted to put together a trip report to share some beta in case others are considering this route.

Day 1 of 4

[paragraph break] Day 0: After driving to Ely and picking up permits, I had dinner and a couple beers at Rockwood- the first time I had ever eaten there. The food hit the spot, the Tuesday night bar staff was friendly, and the beer list was fantastic. I then began the long, dark drive up the Echo trail to arrive at Little Indian Sioux entry about 11:30pm. Slept in the back of the car and was fresh to go the next morning. [paragraph break]

Day 1: I woke and ate my customary doughnuts and frappachino for breakfast before packing the canoe and getting on the portage trail just after 8. I’d never entered LIS before, and I began the winding paddle north in a damp September morning fog. The company was just me, a shy beaver, and a couple of trumpeter swans. [paragraph break]

The funniest thing happened on the river: I came silently up on a lone Canada goose floating along the shoreline. I was about 20yards away when it first noticed my presence, and it immediately took off to fly away from me downriver. The only problem was that in its haste it did not see the dead log bent out over the water about 12 feet in front of it. The goose flew head-on straight into the log with a loud “smack” before falling over backwards into the water. I thought for a moment that I might get to eat fresh goose for a first night meal, but after a minute it did right itself in the water and spent some time shaking itself out. The poor goose looked downright bewildered and it no longer seemed to care about the human so close. It was just slowly regaining its composure as I paddled on by. Incredible. [paragraph break]

Upper and Lower Pauness lakes each held one party I could see: a quiet sleepy tent on the former, and a group of scout-age boys fishing from shore on the latter. As I paddled toward the portage to Loon lake, I imagined that one of the boys in the large group is the quiet, introverted boyscout I once was. He sees the sleek solo canoe glide through the lake mist- and off to an adventure scripted only by the whim of the man paddling it with quick switching strokes in an unbroken, practiced rhythm. The boy never before realized that there are canoes made for only one person, and he will remember that moment- tucking it away to later influence his future adventures silently exploring wild places. [paragraph break]

The water table was not especially high this time of year, and the Devil’s cascade was no roaring falls. It was a very scenic portage though; descending through the shaded gorge. Once out onto the main basin of Loon lake the sun began intermittent appearances through parted clouds and drove the fog away: signaling that midmorning had begun. I was feeling good in open water, and upped the pace as I happily paddled northwest across the lake. I followed the Canadian shore north to Beatty portage, and up into the western side of Lac LaCroix. I had paddled by here previously, but never stopped to look for the pictographs. I did find some faded images at the base of the big cliffs, but not nearly as spectacular as the ones on the eastern side of the lake. [paragraph break]

I snacked on my lunch as I went north on Lacroix, and the sun came out more and more to make for a fairly nice afternoon. Wind was moderate from the northwest, but no big waves to contend with. Once I turned the corner to head east, I was in the best part of the lake. I love the north part of Lacroix- with the dozens of islands holding mature white pines: all with exposed rock ringing the shoreline. The motorboats of the Canadian side are far enough away not to bother you, and the camps are remote enough that you rarely see another paddler. I was planning to camp somewhere up here tonight, to make an early crossing of the lake and enter the Namakan river tomorrow morning. An east wind was starting to build and while I was relatively protected amongst the islands of Lacroix, my internal weather radio was going off, “nothing good ever comes from an east wind” I thought. Time to find camp. [paragraph break]

The site I chose was right on the border just north from Takumich lake. I circled the small island with the red dot twice without seeing any sign of a camp. I pulled the canoe up on shore and began exploring. The island is shaped something like a budding yeast cell, and as it turns out, the campsite is located in the middle of the island at the isthmus where the two cells are dividing. The camp is accessible from either side, and it appeared to be used little. It was not a large camp, but was perfect for my needs. It was just after 3:00 and I thought I could hear distant thunder from the west, so I didn’t waste time in putting up the hammock and tarp- choosing a sheltered spot that did not involve the tallest trees on the island to give me some peace of mind. I had water and a snack, and was happy with the 22 miles I had put in today. I sat in my chair with the camera tripod pointed out west over the lake, and shot long exposures of the horizon, hoping to catch one of the strong bolts of the approaching electrical storm. As the rain shadow closed in, I retired to the hammock for an afternoon nap beneath the pitter patter of rain on the tarp, glad I had chosen a good spot out of the wind. [paragraph break] I awoke around 7pm to a bright sun low in the western sky that was illuminating the towering thunderheads that had moved off to the east. The air was still and peaceful, and I rehydrated my dinner. I sat on the lakeshore with the camera as I sipped bourbon and watched the sun set over the islands of Lacroix. As darkness closed, I again curled up into my hammock, falling asleep after hearing the very distant sound of wolves across the lake somewhere south of me.


Day 2 of 4

The Namakan River: [paragraph break] I woke and ate breakfast as I checked the weather: chance of rain all day with a southeast wind changing to southwest by evening. Forecasted strong storms beginning late tomorrow afternoon. My Namakan route was still a go, but I thought about trying to camp towards the end of the river, to be able to cross the large Namakan and Sand point lakes tomorrow and get back in the BWCA before the storms hit. I broke camp and was again on the water around 8. I headed north to Canada across the main basin of Lacroix, with perhaps a dozen fishing and outfitter boats zooming east and west during my crossing. I headed towards the first nations village and the mouth of the Namakan river. Large signs warned against fishing the river without hiring a tribal guide. I didn’t see anyone moving in the village and paddled on by. [paragraph break]

I was a little nervous paddling solo down an unfamiliar river, and while I had studied my maps as best I could I wasn’t sure of the exact portage locations. I knew that the first rapids and large falls were just after the bridge, and so I cautiously approached as the current began to speed up. There appeared to be a landing river right at the base of the bridge, but water levels were low, and the snake rapids just beyond the bridge looked manageable. I found the preferred line to be just left of center and ran the rapid without a scratch or worry- and maybe only one standing wave breaking into the canoe. The large snake falls begin about 60 yards after the rapids though, so it is a quick ferry to the right bank where a takeout lies with a 4-wheeler trail leading back into the woods. I portaged down past the falls and put in on the rocky shore below. There was a fair amount of trash and junk in the woods, but the falls were a really beautiful place. I felt good from passing the first obstacle, and was excited as I paddled the Ivy channel north out of the reservation and into true wilderness. [paragraph break]

This was my favorite section of the river; it was small and beautiful and wild. I had to negotiate a few riffles and tight spots that were probably only present in low water, but it was easy travel until Ivy falls. The portage is river left, and a good downhill climb, but the tricky part is below the falls. There are two small islands (one of which holds a great campsite) and the river divides into three channels around them before reforming a solid river. The middle channel looked best, and I tried to get as much forward speed as possible before being sucked into the current. I only bounced off of one rock, but otherwise managed the fast water okay until the channels joined up again. The river then widened to become Threemile lake, and I chugged along with the SE wind pushing at my back. There looked to be an outpost camp on one of the islands here, with a floatplane dock and a pile of upturned canoes. [paragraph break]

I paddled past Bear island and to the next set of rapids(Squaw rapids). In higher water you might be able to run the right hand side, but the portage is short and straight down the middle of the small island separating the river. At this time the wind had shifted to due south, but it didn’t bother me much on the river. I saw one bear briefly on the north bank near Wawa island. The upcoming Quetico rapids show a 160rd portage around them, but as I got closer they appeared fairly mild. Perhaps it was the south wind blowing up against the current that created a few big standing waves, but I ran the whole set without any worry whatsoever- and no rock hits at all. I did have to fight a few gusts paddling across Bill lake, and then cautiously approached the High falls from the far left. You can hear the roar from quite a ways away. [paragraph break]

There were two fishing outboards with tackle and beer coolers tied up at the landing, but oddly enough I never encountered the fishermen themselves and it remains a mystery to me where they were. I portaged the canoe to the bottom of the falls and went back up to the cliff edge to take a look and eat lunch. There is a clearing looking over the falls that would make a neat but very loud camp. The falls were spectacular- even in the low water. I thought of the recent dam proposals and surveying of the last 5 years that almost put a power generation dam at this site. How much of a loss would it be if the falls were buried in concrete, and the upstream river forever altered by a dam here. I took out the camera to shoot stills and some video of the falls. My tripod was back in the canoe so I layed down on the ground to stabilize the camera on a rock in front of me for the video. I got about 10 sec of video when all of a sudden I see something move between my face and the outstretched camera--- a snake!!! I jumped in the air and *may * have said some bad words. Yikes! It was just a garter snake, but the unexpected meeting at close proximity surprised me for sure. I headed back to the canoe to refill water and paddle on. [paragraph break]

Next was Little Eva lake and the Hay portage. Note that the Hay portage location is incorrect on the Mckenzie maps. Don’t paddle the riffle past that small island to look for the portage. The real trail starts further east, at the mouth of a small creek right in the center of that little bay. It is marked correctly on the big wall map at Piragis. The portage is maybe 180rods or so, but it brings you all the way down past all of the hay rapids. It was overgrown and not heavily traveled at all. The downstream landing is a nice beach, but I thought it would be very difficult to find the trail if you were traveling upriver. The day had clouded over, but it had not rained and I felt fortunate. The river is more narrow and focused at this point and travel is a little faster. You can see the bridge over Lady rapids from a ways upriver. The portage on river right is well defined, and there was actually an upturned canoe and cooler just sitting there. Note that you should not take the right fork of the trail that leads up to the road. Stay left along the riverbank and portage right under the bridge. I thought the water looked benign enough, so I was able to put in right before the bridge and had clear paddling in only moderate current for the rest of the rapid. [paragraph break]

From here out it is bends and turns and the occasional Fishing boat coming up from Namakan Lake. There were lots of eagles on this section of river. I could tell the wind from the southwest was getting a bit stronger, and the gusts would occasionally come down between the trees and harass me. I kept an eye out for a place to camp, but also reasoned that pushing just a little further on would land me on the edge of Voyageurs National park and give me a head start on tomorrow’s paddle to beat the storms. Crossing into Namakan lake gave me a full on headwind, but I hit the gas and made way. I paused briefly for a friendly chat with a cabin owner on the south shore who was out cleaning his dock. Then it was a little further west to the Namakan Narrows and back towards the USA. [paragraph break]

I had never paddled the narrows before. They were amazing with a skinny lake route twisting among cliffs on all sides. It reminded me of the Wisconsin Dells but without sandstone. It did take some care to stay out of the way of the occasional motorboat that was also winding its way through the narrows- but I could hear them coming. It was after 6:30 when I made camp on the northern side of Sand Point lake. I heartily ate dinner after 28 miles of paddling the Namakan river as a day-trip. I explored the island a little, but there was no sunset on the cloudy evening and the darkness came early. A little bourbon and reading before bed. Sleep was blissful and uninterrupted.


Day 3 of 4

The Loon River [paragraph break]

On the water at 7:30 and into the south wind that had not relented overnight. It was a bit of work heading south on Sand Point lake. My plan was to get as far as I could before the storms. The new forecast had pushed them out until evening, but it sure would be nice to be in camp and in a warm hammock when they did arrive. My good friend and his father and two other friends were due to enter the Moose river north today and planned to camp on Oyster Lake. I had planned to at some point meet up with them for a night or two. I thought I might camp tonight on Loon lake and make my way over there tomorrow, but as the day went on my plan evolved into possibly trying to get to Oyster lake tonight. [paragraph break]

I paddled the winding trail of the Loon river, and most features were familiar from a trip I had done here the year before. Just after the eastward turn, I overtook a green olde town canoe with a man and woman that was heavily loaded. They were friendly, and had never been on this route before, so I gave them some beta about the approaching loon rapid. They asked about my canoe and if I was a part of the watertribe group. I said, no, why do you ask?” and they explained that they had just started the Crane lake voyageurs challenge that day (a day early). I told them my name and that I had paddled the challenge last year and it turns out they had read my trip report and were all excited about the route. I matched their pace for awhile and we had a nice chat. [paragraph break]

When we reached Loon falls, I portaged my load over to Loon lake, and then went back to help them carry stuff. I briefly marked some route features on their maps, and wished them good luck before padding off into Loon lake. By now the sun had come out and gave a good solar beating for a mid-September day. After the fairly long portage east into Heritage creek, I was pretty hot and going through a lot of water. I was thrown a twist when the portage crossed the Sioux Hustler trail and I wasn’t expecting any forks or intersections. I rightly assumed it must be the trail and I made my way just fine, without any errant turns. [paragraph break]

The low water had left plenty of barely-submerged rocks to dodge in the still Heritage creek, but I was slow and careful and didn’t hit any as I traveled through. There were two parties on Heritage lake: one in camp and one out fishing. Then an uneventful portage east to an easy crossing of Lynx passing by a few more campers out enjoying the sun, and then the long portage to Ruby, where I again paused to re-fill water bottles. [paragraph break]

Hustler lake was next, and I almost wished I had stopped to camp, but I was at this time excited to see my friends only a few miles away- and to make a solid camp for a few days of storms. Hustler lake seemed really cool with the varied terrain on different arms of the lake- It is definitely on the ‘need to return sometime’ list. The portage from Hustler to Oyster was long, with a good amount of climbing and descending, but it was a pretty trail. I landed on Oyster lake around 5:30pm and I knew the lake well from previous visits. This was my longest day at just over 32 miles. [paragraph break]

My rendezvous strategy was just to paddle past all the campsites until I spotted someone familiar. I didn’t take too long and I found my friends hanging tarps and making dinner at their site. I was hot and smelled like fitness, so I took a swim in the lake while it was still light out. I rehydrated dinner and set up my hammock. I took a fair amount of time seeking out a more protected hang and received couple comments in jest for ‘taking so long when there are all these good trees around’….but my careful consideration would payoff later. We shared drinks and snacks and good conversation into the night around a fire, and eventually retired to bed. [paragraph break]

About 5 minutes to midnight, I was awakened to heavy sideways rain and near constant lightning. I clicked on my headlamp and saw that the bottom edge of the tarp ended in a curtain of horizontal water blowing clear underneath my hammock. The ground beneath me had become a river of mud and pine duff swirling downhill. I stayed good and dry, though, and the low-pitched tarp performed well (yay DIY tarp!). [paragraph break]

Off to my right was a friend who- on that very night- had been persuaded to try hammock camping for the first time. His borrowed hex tarp was 90degrees to mine, and the wind must have been blowing right in through the end. I saw his light come on for a minute or two as he assessed the situation, and wondered what in the world he must have been thinking. What a night to try hammocking for the first time! After a few minutes he turned the light off and I reasoned that he must be okay. [paragraph break]

I could tell that another of my friends who was hanging further across camp also had a light on, but when I started to see it outside his tarp and walking around I knew that something was amiss. His tarp had doors on each end, but was hung closer to the lake, and with a bit more exposure to the wind. There may have been some shouts of frustration coming from his direction, but the storm was loud enough I couldn’t really tell. With my low-pitched shelter, I couldn’t directly see over there, but it was about ten minutes before the activity settled down and he also turned off the light. [paragraph break]

I lay awake for an hour or so listening to the storm. The sensory input was rich all around. Even though it was dark, the strobe of lightning flashes dazzled my eyes. The deafening sound of sheets of water hitting the tarp and the woods all around. The wind both swaying the hammock and shaking the trees that were holding it up. The big, deep thunderclaps that you can feel rattling around your insides. I was perhaps a little afraid with thoughts of whether trees could fall if it intensified- but overall I enjoyed the exciting show from my warm nest. Eventually, the rain slowed to a constant patter and I again drifted to sleep.


Day 4 of 4

[paragraph break] Day 4-6 [paragraph break]

The next day we picked up the soggy camp that had been blown to a mess and we had plenty to talk about how each man had fared overnight. The first-timer had gotten slightly wet feet at the windward end of his hammock, but didn’t seem fazed by it at all. The friend who was up said that his stakes pulled out and while the tarp was flapping around uncontrollably, he was forced to get up and find some other rock or log or something to tie it back down. He had quite a few things to hang up and dry out the next day! [paragraph break]

We basecamped for three nights and enjoyed fires, food, whiskey, lake trout, naps, photos, and exploring. There was one more night of storms and heavy rain, though maybe not as intense as the first. I noticed a little 1/2" tear in the middle of my tarp and reasoned it must have been a branch that came down in the storm. I was going to gorilla-tape it, but my friend had some gear-aid tenacious tape; and I cut a small piece for inside and outside the tarp- and you can't even see the repair unless you look closely. It will likely be a permanent repair and I have since added the tenacious tape to my kit. Among our party was a rabid Packer fan, and one sunny afternoon with an improvised antenna were able to pull in the Packer-Viking game on a crackling FM radio as we sat and played cribbage. It was a departure from my normal wilderness quiet, but with the company it was a splendid time. [paragraph break]

I was disappointed to see the “rock porch” campsite on Oyster lake had lost the large white pine that shaded and protected what was previously one of the better campsites in the BWCA. The first night I had ever camped in the BW was at that site, and at home I have a sunset photo featuring that tree that is printed on canvas and hanging in the guest room. It had fallen a different direction than the wind from the other night, so it must have been down before the present storm- but not long. [paragraph break]

Just as my paddle in a few days ago was in a grey fog, the paddle out was on a grey day that threatened a wet September mist. There were a few trees down across portage trails that my friends said were not there on the way in. We exited through Moose river north, and I was shuttled back to my car at LIS. We stopped for beers in Ely with a toast to good friends, and headed our separate ways home. [paragraph break] [paragraph break]

I think I really was able to combine a long solo trip with a group basecamp trip. I enjoy covering distance when solo, but I probably paddled longer and harder than intended during the first few days. I was glad to be stationary in camp before the storms came, though. My gps total was just over 100 miles for the trip. It was fun to see the Namakan river and the Loon river back-to-back and think about the challenges that each route would throw to fur-trade voyageurs. The multiple permits needed for this trip were a little tricky to manage, but I was able to make the border crossings and BW entries legitimately.


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