BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 28 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1364 feet
A couple returnees and four newbies from EP 16 up to LLC
August 27, 2011
Moose/Portage River (north)
Number of Days:
We awoke about 5 a.m. Saturday morning after a few too many drinks the night before at Dee's and the Ely Steakhouse. We got everything in order for a 6 a.m. departure from our outfitter, Piragis. We had been there the night before to get all details ironed out, so all we had to do Saturday morning was load up the van for the lift to Entry Point 16.
I was a two-time visitor to the Boundary Waters, once as a kid and once about 7 years ago with another member of the group, Chris. We went in on East Bearskin Lake off the Gunflint Trail.
The other four had never been to the Boundary Waters: Mike, BJ, Troy and Luke, a real newbie in that he doesn't even like to camp. But we were proud of him for joining us and putting his fears aside. Mike was meeting 4 members of the group for the first time.
We loaded up the Piragis van and set off, reaching the entry point by about 7. We unloaded and set off on the initial portage, giving us our first assessment of the weight of our gear. I teamed with Luke. Chris teamed with Troy. BJ and Mike teamed up. We set off without incident up the Moose River.
Our goal was to paddle through to Lac La Croix (est. paddle/portage time: 7 hours) and target the three camp sites on Boulder Bay for a three-night basecamp. I was worried -- given the busy route and the busy time of year -- we would find all of them occupied. I knew we'd be pretty bushed by the time we got there and didn't want to paddle up the lake to search for a site.
My canoe settled in behind the other two quickly, a theme for the trip. I had never paddled from the stern before and had early trouble keeping us straight. Not a great start for Luke on his first trip. The other two canoes were cruising and ours was falling back, with our zigging creating more work for us.
Our first ordeal victimized Luke, of course. He got stuck in the muck as we traversed a beaver dam on the river before Nina Moose. If he pulled one foot out, the other (now with all the weight) sank deeper. We laughed but also worried about how he was feeling about his decision to brave the outdoors. After an announcement that "I could be golfing right now!" (the only one of the trip!) he freed both feet and we bypassed the dam.
The water levels were noticeably low, and once we reached the second stretch of the Moose River after Nina Moose we found ourselves beaching constantly. With us trying to cruise up to LLC to beat the traffic to the camp sites on Boulder Bay we were worrying we were losing time getting out of the canoe to walk it through ankle-deep water.
We stayed within site of the other two until I got my bearings on Lake Agnes and we caught up. Felt nice to take a straight line from then on in.
Agnes was very calm (as was Nina Moose) so we cut a very nice, fast line. We were getting pretty worn out, so I announced to the group on the north end of Agnes that we were 95 percent of the way there.
We decided on the two-portage route into LLC after researching on the BWCA site and taking welcome advice that it would be faster. Pretty hilly but we got through. Once we put in at Boulder Bay it was time to strain our eyes to see if we could spot anyone at the campsite directly across the water, the more westerly of the two campsites on the south end of Boulder Bay. That was our No. 1 prized camp site, which we read was large and breezy (to keep the bugs at bay).
Chris and Troy's canoe was off the portage landing first and made a bee-line to that site. Luke and I stayed back and watched. When we saw them land the canoe we knew it was empty and the whole group let out a yell. I had refused to let myself believe we'd get our No. 1 camp site. So I was ecstatic.
We cruised across, landed and started setting up camp. Everyone raved about the site, complete with a log table and seating area around a nicely positioned fire grate with a nice rock wind shield. The tents were placed in a huge area under a red pine stand. We could have put 10 tents there. Gorgeous site right where we wanted to be. A great start.
We were targeting 7 hours for the entire trip from the EP to Boulder Bay based off what some kind folk on the message board told us. Chris, our trip planner and map holder, checked the watch: 6 hours on the nose. We felt good about ourselves.
It was about 2 p.m. and it took us maybe 90 minutes to set up tents and get a basic kitchen area set up. We were too tired from the paddle in to think about getting back into the canoes to fish. Besides, we had brought frozen steaks in to thaw during the paddle for our first night's meal so we didn't need fish.
After setting up camp, Mike and I began the hunt for firewood with my campsaw. We found next to nothing in the area near camp. Picked clean. I spotted a white (dead) tree across the bay, which we could walk to through a marsh. Mike and I made our way over there and I realized it was a small white oak -- about the best firewood you could hope to find. Mike and I took turns breaking off branches and sawing when we needed to. We got a lot of long-burning wood from that tree.
But we set up the rods and tried for a little surf to go with our turf. No luck. We got nothing. It was a theme for the trip. No real fishing from camp. Bummer, but we were in Boulder Bay with a lot of great fishing nearby.
The breezy camp site reviews I had read were spot on. We saw no bugs the first night. Troy served as the trip's cook and we cooked up the NY strips in the skilled with some add-water potato mash. It was excellent. We stayed up for a few cocktails and hit the hay, tired from a long paddle/portage in.
Sunday morning I creaked out of my tent unhappy with my decision to leave my sleeping pad behind. It was a decision I would become more unhappy with each night/morning.
I put together a breakfast menu for our first two mornings and figured we could empty our trail mix bags and polish off our granola bars on the final morning, which would precede our paddle for home.
Sunday morning pancakes were on the menu. I used a basic camp recipe of add-water-only pancake mix and instant oatmeal in a baggie, to which we added water to make batter. Cut a hole in the corner and squeeze batter into frying crisco and you get one heck of a nice, hot breakfast.
That got us ready for an active day of adventure -- a paddle up to Warrior Hill and the pictographs. What I was most excited about were the prospects of our first shore lunch of the trip and my first in a couple years. For some in the group it would be their first ever.
We packed a bag with the skillet, a filet knife, the Crisco, the Shore Lunch mix and the one-burner stove. But I was a little worried the main ingredient would be missing.
We pulled out west from our camp and as soon as we rounded a point to head north we had our first action. Lucas, the most unlikely contributor, had hooked a walleye but failed to set the hook and it was gone before we boated it. But within minutes of me trolling him past a nice-looking spot 20 feet from a rock wall that was sure to be adjacent to deep water Lucas had another strike.
He got this walleye on the stringer this time and we were hopeful for the day. Not more than a minute later his perch Husky Jerk had hooked into another walleye. Lucas 2, group 0. Maybe a minute later and Lucas had his third.
I didn’t have a line in the water yet as I was making sure to keep Lucas trolling through the fish. Lucas was the newbie after all and I was enjoying watching him carry the team.
The group contributed a walleye, two northerns and a smallie and we had more than enough for lunch if my rusty fish-cleaning skills didn’t massacre the main course.
We stopped on a picturesque rock island on the way to Warrior Hill. From there we could get a nice vista from one side of the island and – looking north – could see the forest fire on the Canadian side. We pumped water, Troy got the Crisco sizzling and I got to work on the fish. I hadn’t Y-boned a northern in about 10 years and failed miserably on patient 1.
I lost some good meat in surgery but we had enough for a good meal and my fillet work improved as the trip went on. We ate and hiked to the other side of the island for some spectacular scenery and a group photo that unfortunately didn’t turn out well (self-timer screwed up the focus; those pine needles are in perfect focus!).
Soon we were heading north to Warrior Hill and then the pictographs. We got a kick out of the international boundary marker and stopped for some R and R on a sandy beach before the long paddle back. When we got back near camp we fished some more and soon had a mixed bag for a nice fish dinner, this time accompanied by some instant mashed potatoes. Great dinner. Well done, Troy.
We sipped some cocktails and watched the brightest star we had ever seen. We’d seen some great displays in our 35 years on Earth but this was the best. Not a cloud in the sky – much like the day. We were spotting shooting stars, satellites, constellations … even Mars.
Monday began about 8 a.m. with another sunny morning and plans to visit Iron Lake. But first: breakfast.
Today we fueled up with separately Zip Loc’d bags of Grape Nuts with dried milk powder mixed in. We each poured the contents of our bag into our bowl and added milk and some syrup leftover from the previous breakfast. Nothing special but great fuel for another day of paddling and portaging.
We cleaned up and loaded the canoes with fishing gear and cooking gear, with more hopeful plans to shorelunch on Iron.
I knew from my research that the generally accepted way to get to Iron from LLC was via Bottle Portage. However, we decided on the more direct route with less paddling.
So from our site we headed west toward the mouth of the Boulder River and toward the 68-rod portage that would get us over to the eastern part of LLC and primed for the big portage into Iron.
After some paddling around to find the 68-rod portage (we were in the wrong bay!) we found it and traversed it with little problem. That put us into a pretty boggy part of LLC near the Ranger house. A quick paddle (30 seconds) got us to another portage landing. And this is where I got confused.
The map shows no small lake (which we called the tree graveyard) with sunken stumps and a third portage into Iron. But we did portage three times and hit that tiny pond-like lake with all the dead trees and stumps and a really muddy portage landing. Anyway, the lowlight was the 327-rod portage into Iron itself.
Easily the worst portage of the trip. Uphill much of the way, awkward footing in a lot of areas (rocky, flimsy planks, etc), bugs everywhere and most of all: long. And I wasn’t even the one hauling the canoe. (Thanks, Lucas!) But when we arrived at Iron we could see our reward and I could tell immediately why it is legendary for fishing. It reminded me a lot of Mille Lacs, the walleye capital of the world. Rock shelves and humps and reefs everywhere. A walleye and smallmouth’s dream.
Needless to say we were pretty work out so rather than paddling long stretches right off we started fishing. The first wind of the trip reared its head and Lucas and I used it to drift over some rock piles and ledges.
Lucas got his first smallie pretty quick and I hooked a northern on a jig and Gulp leech. Both of us were hunting for walleyes but we were happy to have fish. The others were finding northern and smallies, and we ended with one walleye.
We settled on an island with a nice area to land three canoes and got set up for another shore lunch. That was put on hold briefly as a large gust blew Mike and BJ’s canoe out to sea. Troy and BJ hopped in another canoe and chased it down. The easy part was catching up to it, with the help of the wind.
The hard part of towing it back into a head/crosswind. But they succeeded. I cleaned the fish and Troy fried them up. We pumped more water and admired the beauty of Iron Lake. We didn’t see a soul on the lake other than us, which I was thankful for considering I learned after we were settled that we actually were in Canada and the other side of the island was in the US. We swear all the fish we caught were American, though. Less of an accent.
After lunch the plan was to visit Rebecca Falls. Lucas and I, recalling the long paddle and portage back to our base camp, forecasting the long paddle back to the entry point the next day and feeling the pain in our backs and shoulders, decided to split from the other four and paddle back to camp.
I was sad to miss the falls, which is something I was excited all trip to see. But my back was looking forward to a couple hours stretched out in the grass at camp.
So the other two canoes made for the falls while I – with the only real working camera after some water affected the other two – and Lucas headed back to the mammoth portage toward LLC.
On our own, we took our time as we had no one to hold up and as we had to be more careful. We reached the tree graveyard and had our first near-disaster of the trip. We were paddling our course through the visible stumps when we hit one that was just under the water and nearly tipped. I still wonder how the canoe stayed right-side-up, but I’m not arguing with the outcome. We would have been in trouble in that murky, weedy water with muck everywhere. And we would have lost valuable gear that we didn’t have secured as we usually did.
Disaster averted, we cruised the rest of the way back and stretched out at camp. I was thinking of the adventure the other four were on but I was pretty focused on laying down and giving the back and shoulders a rest, happy to be done with portaging and long paddles for the day. Lucas felt the same way and we spent an hour shooting the breeze, hydrating and figuring out a place to hit walleyes until we met up with the rest of the group.
He and I launched our canoe and headed toward the rock wall where we had the early success the day before, in search of walleyes. The wind was in our faces on the way north so we trolled up and then drifted back. We got a northern and a couple smallies and a few other strikes but nothing of note. I was sure we would have luck at dusk with crankbaits but we were shut out on the ‘eyes. But the consolation was having this large section of lake to ourselves. We couldn’t hear or see another person, for the first time because we were split up from our group.
We fished up until dark, always drifting or paddling our way toward base camp. We saw the others get back before us. They were hooting a bit so it was clear we had dinner.
Monday night was the first time in camp we were bothered by mosquitoes. And they were brutal. The breeze had died and it was a little warmer than the other nights. I was down by the water with the bounty of fish – I believe 14 total, mostly northern but a few walleyes and even a crappie.
That was the only time I remember grumping publicly about cleaning all the fish. I apologize to the group for complaining in the middle of a great trip. But I think the mosquitoes, which were much worse down by the water, heightened my agony. It was hard to concentrate on removing rib cages and Y bones with mosquitoes flying in my eyes and ears. The head net helped and I very much appreciated Mike coming down and asking to learn how to fillet a walleye.
Mike’s a foodie and you could tell he has worked with a knife before. He was a natural and took a few fish of my hands so I could get out of the mosquito swarm earlier and into a cocktail or two.
We had our fourth consecutive non-breakfast fish meal and stayed up on our final night to chat, sports trivia mostly. But we also worked on our astronomy degrees by identifying constellations and stars/planets. It was a great night but also sad. We knew we’d be breaking camp in the morning.
We woke up early so we could lounge in camp and soak in our final hours of camp time before the daunting paddle home, which my back and I were dreading. I know Lucas felt the same.
We sat around like chipmunks shoveling in trail mix by the fistful. I started getting my fishing gear secured – zip-tying in the rods and removing the reels to pack in the tackle case. We all got to work on packing up and taking down tents. I was worried about getting everything into my pack as I was carrying the two-burner stove and it was a lengthy process packing it originally. It took some time but I got it reasonably packed – probably a little sloppier than the original pack job.
Lucas and I got our canoe ready and launched, the first in the water. We headed over toward the Boulder River. We came in the two-portage route from Agnes for the sake of speed. Now, leaving 8 hours before our pickup time for a trip that took us 6 hours on the way in, we could take the more scenic Boulder River route.
The other canoes caught up with us and we cruised into the river, soon learning that cruising was not the right speed for a river named after boulders. We still moved at a good pace and enjoyed the scenery. I was a little disappointed in myself for not choosing the river as our fishing spot the previous night. But that’s hindsight and I think my thinking at the time was sound: go where you had success.
We bypassed a rock dam, thanks to Chris. He stopped on the rocks and ushered all three canoes through the low water before jumping into his canoe. Soon we could see the portage landing for the 114 rods to Agnes. Not a tough landing to find with a group of 8 there before us.
We had seen them pass our camp a few hours earlier. They were double-portaging (aluminum canoes) and were on their second leg. We were single portaging and – after maneuvering out of a muddy landing that sunk Chris up to his knees – we passed them as they returned for the last canoe and some bags.
We chatted with them a bit on the landing into Agnes. A younger group from Canada who were taking the paddling slower than we were. I kind of envied their pace.
We tore a path across Agnes. There was a little wind and a small chop but we cut through it fine. I thought back to all the trouble Lucas had on the paddle in, zigzagging our way north through Agnes. What a difference a few days of paddling makes. We were right with the group this time, making great time. I imagine we got across Agnes in one-third the time it took us on the way in on Saturday.
We entered the river south of Agnes, an area BJ called Dinotopia. We saw huge eagles flying and perched that resembled pterodactyls. The remote area looked like something out of a History Channel recreation of the Mesozoic. Good call, BJ.
Despite the beauty, this was the stretch of the river I disliked most on the way in and was looking forward to putting in the rearview on the way out. The water was really low, and in several spots we beached. I got out and pushed Lucas and the canoe a few times. A couple times we both had to get out. The ground was either a thick much that nearly ate our shoes or a rocky gambit that almost broke my ankle. But we got through quick. I recall it being worse on the way in.
After a long portage, we soon found ourselves on the sandy beach on the north end of Nina Moose Lake. Time for some much needed relaxation. Stretch out the backs, rest the shoulders and fuel up. We still had some trail mix and energy bars left. And BJ had a few electrolyte tablets left to dissolve in our water bottles. I can’t tell you how clutch those were, BJ. They even tasted good.
We stretched out for about 45 minutes and refilled our Nalgene bottles before the paddle across Nina Moose into a pretty fierce headwind. It’s a smaller lake than Agnes but the high winds would make it more difficult to cross.
Immediately I realized I had worried too much about the wind. We actually lucked out that it was a headwind and not a crosswind. We cut through pretty well and kept a straight line to avoid getting the canoe turned and caught by the wind. In a matter of 18 minutes (Chris timed it) we were on the south weedline looking for out entrance to the river.
Now we were on the home stretch and it felt good. Kind of a weird feeling to be excited about getting done with a long paddle when it also meant the end of your trip. But I think all of us were pretty wiped out and ready for a drink with ice and some R and R outside of a canoe. It wasn’t a long trip but we spent very little of it sitting around. We sought adventure and found it.
In the last 20 minutes of our paddle we got a light sprinkle. It was the first we’d seen all trip, as if God was looking out for us. Chris even made the comment that it was as if God was saying, “Thanks for coming, guys.”
Knowing we were way ahead of schedule for our pickup time, Lucas and I slowed a bit to take pressure off our backs. We coasted in as the second canoe was being put up overhead and disappeared out of sight on the final portage of the trip. We pulled out the canoe and pulled out the gear, strapped it on and got the canoe over Lucas’ head.
We got about 10 percent into that long last portage when the sky opened up and we got doused by heavy rain. I had just been wondering aloud to Lucas what the rush was on the way back when all we’d be doing was waiting to be picked up at the trailhead. But Troy nailed it when he pointed out that our pace enabled us to be out of our canoes when the rain came. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in our canoe for that.
We shot the breeze while we waited for our pickup. Our ride came with a cooler of soda and snacks, which tasted phenomenal. An hour later we were back in Ely and immediately made our way to the Ely Steakhouse for burgers and beers. A great way to end a great trip.