BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
May 22 2022
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1364 feet
May 2007 trip - EP 16 to Crown Land and High Falls
May 15, 2007
Moose/Portage River (north)
Number of Days:
We left Chicago at 6:00 AM for a trip with a few question marks hanging over our heads. The drive up across Wisconsin was however uneventful - no construction and we made excellent time, stopping at Betty's Pies for a bite and into Ely before 5:00.
Permits and licenses were secured, We were again warned that there could be no campfires and lodging at VNO confirmed - we pulled our packs out and hoisted them up the stairs for a last minute gear check and rebalancing. I realized with a sinking assuredness that I'd forgotton the Gor-tex jacket I'd purloined from one of my sons in my bedroom this dawn. A cursory check of my wife's "Barbie" SUV confirmed this. We wandered over to the Wintergreen 1/2 price rack and I picked up a nice pull over wind/rain jacket. Nice stuff, and really about the same price as the Northface stuff made by labor in China.
A quick dinner at Cranberries - a tour of Piragis to pick up maps for the July trip and it was time to hit the VNO bunkbeds.
We were at Brittons ("portion size out of control with an order of doughnuts to go") for an early breakfast - we were told that the center tables were reserved for incoming firefighters. Minutes later the overworked wait and cook staff were further overwhelmed when 20 or so New Mexico based Forest Service Firefighters trooped quietly in. They had been fighting a smaller fire South of the Ely area, were dressed in forest green uniforms and had were transported by pretty interesting Forest Service vehicles, boasting capacity for ten with gear, separate air-conditioning and air filtering, all wheel drive and a high ground clearance.
My paddling partner, Steve thanked them for coming up as we left the restaurant.
We hit the Echo Trail and reached EP16 after the usual endless Echo Trail drive. Arrangements this time were novel - another friend was going to pick up my car and drive it to Canada where we would reclaim it at a previously arranged pullout point in Ontario, West of Quetico. (Note he has a cabin in the general area of Ontario as where we were headed.. and he's the guy who originally introduced me to High Falls - our ultimate destination) I hid the keys and silently prayed that this somewhat complex arrangement would pan out.
Down the portage trail we trooped - always too much gear on spring trips - but you hope for the best… and prepare for the worst. It tuned out that this was the right approach.
The Moose River was low - as low as I've ever seen it - however this offered little difficultly when it came to paddling. The difficulty lie in the entry and exit points. Usually shallow landings were now transformed with sharp drop offs and inconvenient rocks impeding progress. Somewhere on one of the portages heading into Agnes we forgot to tie off the canoe - pulling it up on shore would have been impossible for the reason outlined earlier. It drifted out and was blown by the wind across a wide spot on the River. Fortunately another paddler was heading South and recaptured the errant canoe for us, delaying our trip by only a few minutes. OK, perhaps 40 minutes.
Speaking of crowds - the Moose River traffic was 'July like' heavy! I suspect that the closed EPs off the Gunflint due to the raging Ham Lake fire triggered a lot of changed entry points. Sure seemed like more people that the allowed daily entry points quota!
We reached Agnes and set up camp on the South shore campsite nestled next to two islands amidst towering ancient pines - a family favourite for years - I used to camp here with my sons when they were young. The weather had been windy all day with gusty North and Northeast breezes - these died down at dusk - and I retired to an early tent. As I get older, the first day always wears me out - regardless of how much advance conditioning I do. >
Dawn broke and I was up with the birds. I'm an early morning guy, and this dawn didn't disappoint, with the fog slowly burning off the waters as the sun grew stronger.
We made breakfast and hit the waters of Agnes early. We left this pretty lake and bypassed the portage to Boulder Bay in favor of the Boulder River route. I like this route - though admittedly it's a lot slower. We stopped and fished the waterfalls, though we wisely decided to line the canoe through rather than try and run this feature. (An exiting paddler had warned us about the low water and the danger of trying to run the Vee just right of center.) Duh.
Fishing was fair, but just being out in the warm spring sun and tossing lures into the tumbling waters was a great time.
We left and pressed on to LLC and the Bottle Portage - stopping for lunch on a sandy beach along the way. The winds on LLC had picked up out of the Southwest - creating some interesting swells and choppy water for the last mile or so. The Bottle Portage offers both sucking mud and significant elevation changes, but we made it over in good time.
We passed on a beautiful site on Iron, the low water and the increasing wind would have made landing on the exposed rocks a potentially canoe wrecking activity. Pressing further on, we selected a point site with a large erratic boulder and the cold fire pit nestled next to it.
Our tarp was engineered, the tent pitched and we made camp - temps were a balmy 65, though the wind continued to gust up until late afternoon. Fishing the bay next to this campsite rewarded us with a number of Bass, Northerns and a lone Walleye - so breakfast was assured!
We spent this day fishing, working over mile after mile of Iron Lake shoreline and structure. We caught countless Bass and one thoroughly nasty Northern - who, after dragging the canoe around and diving to the depths of Iron time after time - was finally bought along side the canoe. Well, I was tired any how!
Steve reached for his 'Pike crucifier' - a spring steel device that once inserted into the Pike's mouth and opened takes all the fight out of them just long enough to remove the hooks and release them. His Crucifier was too small - it couldn't spread the jaws enough to stay engaged! Despite our best efforts, the pike thrashed one last time, snapped my 10# mono and headed off to the depths - with my best Rapala. I suspect this one was about 12 pounds or so.
Since this was a fishing day - we pressed on, a couple of Walleyes in tow next to the boat.
We glided around a point and there was a mother Black Bear and her cub. What caught my eye was the absolute and total blackness of their fur - it just absorbs all light. Of course, before either of us could get our cameras out, they turned and lumbered (and ambled) into the forest.
We explored the Bottle Rapids - their usual spring fury greatly diminished. It was interesting to see the water sculpted rock surfaces, normally hidden from view.
We eventually returned to camp and invited the Walleyes to join us for dinner, complemented with peas and hash browns.
We returned to the Bay, but now fishing had completely shut down.
The reason that fishing had shut down was the arrival of a massive cold front and blowing rain that dropped temperatures by nearly 30 degrees by dawn.
This was a weather day - after cleaning up we returned to our sleeping bags happy to be out of the cold and wet. We emerged occasionally, I'm fairly sure I heard the sound of sleet several times assailing the tent. Steve got up around dusk to see if the lake had frozen over yet.
Fortunately we brought along several paperbacks, so the time was put to constructive use.
We emerged to leaden gray skies and the persistent cold Northeast wind. We had to move, we broke a sodden camp and headed back to the Bottle Portage.
The skies cleared and the wind shifted to a favourable Easterly direction speeding our crossing of Lac La Croix over to Fish Stake Narrows, passing Warrior Hill and visiting the famous LLC Pictographs. We found a great campsite that offered spectacular sunset views down the Narrows.
The budding trees and bushes on the East side of the island offered excellent protection from the still cold East wind - we were a full ten degrees warmer on the sunny protected side of the island.
We lounged about, I fished a slip bobber from shore with some success, the primary thing was to enjoy the sun and thaw out from the day before!
Later we worked the shores, trolling and jigging our way around this fishy area - the Bass were fairly cooperative, but the Walleyes stayed silent. This is a very pretty area. As we crossed one traverse between two islands the Hummingbird began to beep almost continuously - hundreds of fish were 90' down hugging the bottom. Interesting. I marked the spot on my GPS.
A couple of other fishermen decamped across the way - they asked if we'd caught any fish - we knew what they were talking about, Walleyes, not Bass or Northerns for us May fisherman. We shook our heads, they were headed somewhere West in the rain, mist and wind.
Fortunately the wind break protected us from the worst of this day's blowing rain - we sat under the tarp, swapped stories of mis-spent youth, played 20 questions and smoked cigars. All in all not a bad day.
This was going to be a serious travel day. We knew we had to be on the water early as we had to cross the 2 1/2 mile expanse of Lac La Croix's frigid waters and wanted to do this without the complications created by wind. Fortunately the weather was fair and pretty calm.
Using the every tool at my disposal I navigated us around Coleman Island and up the Western shore of this massive island.
We reached the Southern shore of Lac La Croix and stopped on a spit of land, digging out the binoculars to try and get out physical bearings before we started over to find the First Nation Village and Ranger Station. We could see a tall radio tower, but my hands weren't steady enough to see what the distant buildings were on the far shore. We headed out paddling steadily NNW making a bee line for the radio tower where we assumed the First Nation village lie.
A light southerly wind worked with us, but created swells - by the time we got to the Northern shore I was working a bit in the stern to keep us pointed the right direction and stable. We pulled into the lee of Indian Island and took a quick water break. We left in the calmer waters and spent a while locating the Ranger Station - which we knew lie to the West of the village on a point. A bit of trial and error, but we found it. Actually we found on open grassy area on a peninsula which had faded basic plywood structures and rickety viewing stands. The playing field was basically round with a structure in the center. Fortunately - and inexplicably - there was a small car with a woman and her child - I walked over, somehow didn’t frighten the child, and asked if the Ranger Station was nearby. The woman kindly pointed me in the right direction just a few hundred feet down the road. I still haven’t a clue as to why they were standing around an empty sports field. They were gone when we returned.
The woman who manned the desk looked clearly startled when we walked in. There was no one on her list as coming into Quetico today. We explained that we were heading down the Namakan River onto Crown Land, but not Quetico. She was pretty vague about the condition of the Namakan and it's portages - turns out we beat the portage crews this time - we were probably some of the first travellers this year. I was especially interested in knowing the best river route, since the waters on Lac La Croix were way down - if their docks are any indication the lake and river were down 2-3 feet from seasonal normal levels. She made a few phone calls and suggested that the Ivy Channel would be the best bet - but no one knew for sure.
It took her a few minutes to locate the right licenses and forms but we paid our fees and headed back to our waiting canoe.
We paddled East to the village. We pulled up on the shore - the village, by the way, is a collection of weather beaten and faded structures, some newer than others with the First Nation Headquarters in the center. I stayed by the canoe, Steve went up into the village seeking a couple of cold cokes. He returned after a few minutes, he couldn’t locate anything that resembled a store and felt a bit out of place.
We crossed under a bridge and almost immediately faced a rapids with a boulder garden and the thundering Snake Falls almost immediately afterwards. We got out and scouted the rapids and decided to line this one, rather than try and run it. A hundred feet later we pulled out and portaged around the thundering Snake waterfalls. None of these reservation portages were in poor repair, there were a few outfitter canoes stashed up on the rocky shore.
As we took a short hydration break, three young village inhabitants walked by - we had a nice conversation. Tip - if you're heading up into these parts, it pays to know your hockey - seems to be the core of every meaningful conversation. One of them was a guide and he provided better advice on river channel selection on the next leg. We also discussed the low water - they showed us how low it really was, by demonstrating how far the flowage normally went in the spring. The guess of 3 feet low seems right - however still there was a lively flow.
We parted company and headed down river.
Due to the low water, there were many rapids not marked on the map. Most we ran selecting the biggest Vee as far back as we could.
By the time we reached the Ivy Falls portage we were starting to get into the rhythm of the river. Winds had been favourable and the current aided our speed. The Namakan is a beautiful river - broad and scenic. We rested for a few minutes and then heard a voice. Calling from a nearby island there were two fishermen. They gave some coaching on how to deal with the rapids below the falls, having observed some Indians doing it the day before in a 16' Lund. With a ten hp Yahama.
Turns out these were two fishermen from Boston, who have returned to this tiny, but well situated island campsite at Ivy Falls every year for years. Campbells flys them in, fully outfits them with an aluminium canoe, gear and food and leaves them for several days of uninterrupted spring fishing. Richard and Bernie were older than us, and seemed intrigued by our trip. They provided us a beer and offered a selection of still boxed Rapalas, as they were flying out the next day. A wonderful wilderness encounter!
Still we paddled, now late into the day. The river turned and the trailing wind increased. We came to another rapids, but couldn't for the life of us find the portage showing on the map, so we availed ourselves to the low water and exposed rock surfaces and bushwacked this one. I had seen two eagles soaring over this island and kept hearing a loud squeaking or crying sound. I finally looked up and saw the aerie high in a pine tree - there were at least a couple of chicks crying out for dinner. Unfortunately the parents got wise about the time I got my camera out, so rather than a dramatic picture of an eagle with a fish in its beak landing on its gigantic nest - I have a picture of the gigantic nest. With the eaglets hiding down inside.
We got past these rapids and continued on, the sun sinking behind us, finally calling it an eleven hour powerbar fuelled day setting up camp on a small island. Dinner was salami on bagels - we were too beat to try anything more ambitious.
Winds blew hard that evening - but the temps remained moderate.
We were up at dawn fishing the rapids that surrounded us. We broke our simple camp and continued our journey to High Falls.
I'd been to High Falls exactly ten years previously, and remembered enough to make the approach with some serious caution. This falls has a twenty foot drop - and though we are good at reading water we followed the shore easing up on the portage carefully.
We landed and portaged down to below this massive falls. I walked the exposed rocks below to view the falls from below - there rocking in the thundering water was a Kevlar canoe - torn in two and shattered. I shook my head - I prayed that the owner hadn't been in it.
The goal of this trip - reaching and fishing High Falls - was driven by the fact that there are plans afoot to dam this beautiful falls for hydro prower to fuel our insatiable demand for electricity. I wanted to see it one more time before they cut roads and started pouring thousands of yards of concrete laced with rebar. Already crews had hauled in drilling equipment and had bored several test holes evaluating the rock structure. Survey marks were evident, but the equipment was gone.
If you remember the beginning of this odyssey I was now some distance from Ely - certainly across two Fisher maps! My car was supposed to be stashed in the Ontario forest some further distance from the falls.
Two motor boats appeared with Ministry of Natural Resources staff and scientists. They pulled up next to our canoe. We chatted - they were on an interesting mission - netting and tagging the giant Sturgeon that dwell in these waters, executing a survey of the fisheries related to the pending dam construction. They actually netted these Sturgeon, placed them in a giant live well on the boat (Some of these fish weigh 100 lbs and are nearly a century old…. and are generally not pleased to be netted) they then perform surgery, implanting a transponder into their abdomen. They have secreted underwater receivers near spawning areas and so track their movements. Neat stuff and nice people. I was hugely relieved when they asked if we owned the black SUV stashed at the put-in. I grinned - Chase had come through!
They went off to do their surveys, and Steve and I fished below the falls all morning. The fishing was good, but after catching countless Bass and a few angry Northerns, we caught but one Walleye which joined us for a shore lunch.
We also realized that the Ministry staff had inadvertently taken Steve's bent shaft wood paddle - lots of people, lots of stuff - it happens. We had a back-up paddle so were OK, but Steve had sentimental (and financial) attachment to that paddle and didn't want to lose it.
We left to find the put-in and my car, planning on leaving them a note on their windshield pleading to have them mail the paddle back to the States.
Did I mention that the Fisher map essentially ends at High Falls… and that I did not load the Canadian Topo map correctly into my Garmin, so at this point I was relying on ten year old memories to recall where on these vast lakes the actual put-in was?
My memory wasn't that good.
As we were paddling seeking the put-in we both noticed something swimming across Little Eva Lake. Too big to be a beaver, we first thought it might be a bear, but as we glided closer we realized that it was a wolf - no two wolves - swimming across. They saw us and reversed direction, leaping from the water and sprinting into the woods… wolves running exhibit such grace that they remind me of NBA players on the court.
We continued to try and flex my memory, but absent any maps - and stupidly lacking any Satellite intervention I was befuddled. All this way, and the last miles……..
Well, we knew that the Ministry people hadn't gone past, which meant that they were still on the job back on Bill Lake above the Falls, and we knew they knew the way!
We paddled back to the falls and waited. And waited. And waited. They worked late, but finally showed up - they'd netted seven Sturgeon… the largest today was 70 pounds.
The lead guy asked, with a twinkle in his eye, if we were missing a paddle. We were happy to have it back - and confessed that we were a bit vague on the actual location of my truck.
He laughed and offered a tow back to the put-in, an offer we accepted gratefully. And so the last miles were done under the power and auspices of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Ontario.
To put this into perspective, from the time we got the truck loaded to the time we got to International Falls, it took another 4 1/2 hours of driving on gravel roads and endless highways. It's good to have a full tank of gas up in the great North! I made it back to the US and International Falls in darkness on fumes.