BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 6
Elevation: 1364 feet
LLC Interior Tour
September 29, 2023
Little Indian Sioux River (north)
Number of Days:
The first few days of the trip were supposed to be warm, around 80F and humid. Day one was no exception. It was in the mid 60s as we shoved off. We were also expecting a lot of rain on the trip, with a pretty much guaranteed all day bout for our entry day – yikes.
Our first hour and a half or so was relatively uneventful. There was no fog on the water because the air temps were so warm, which meant we didn’t quite get that calm morning ambiance we love, but no matter. We paddled along happily, handling the beautiful Elm portage with ease. Good landings on that one – some of the only good ones on the whole route. Not too long after Elm, the rain started. We had our rain gear accessible, but in the time it took to hastily put on the pants and jacket in the canoe, we got relatively soaked. First time I’ve put rain pants on in a canoe!
After taking the advised 40rd portage into Lower Pauness (as the short one is reported to be pretty muddy), we handled the portage to Devil’s Cascade. The landing on the Pauness side was pretty nice, and the plants were changing colors at different rates, so despite the gloom from the rain clouds, there was a colorful, dark, moody atmosphere at that landing, which I had to photograph even if it meant getting my camera a bit wet. I’m glad I took the photos as they really capture the feeling of that moment for me.
We did the portage which was somewhat challenging on the north end, but overall not too technical, just steep. We checked out the campsite at the top and looked cautiously down at the rapids, not wanting to get too close on the slippery rocks and fall to an untimely demise. You couldn’t even hear any water moving… I’ve seen photos of Devil’s Cascade and this was like 10 percent of the flow I see in most pictures.
After a quick lunch in the rain under a tree at the end of the portage, we paddled off onto Loon. Here we saw our first canoe that wasn’t the other party we entered with. We also saw a small boat with probably a 25hp motor fishing, but otherwise it was pretty tranquil and quiet. No wind at all despite the tailwind we hoped to get.
We pushed through the Beatty portage which was cool to see. Despite its ties to civilization (and wanting to get away from such ties on these trips), it was interesting and an easy portage with good landings, so I couldn’t complain.
Lac La Croix was absolutely serene. No wind or waves. Colors reflecting off both Canada and USA. Flat moody light from the clouds made dark rocks pure black. Despite being tired from the travel, and sick of being wet, we couldn’t deny that it was pretty awesome to paddle LLC like this. We looked for the pictographs on the southeast wall and weren’t sure if we saw them or not. Given our desire to beat the sunset, we didn’t linger long. We pushed up to Sandbar Island and found, after seeing pretty much no one and no occupied campsites all day, that both nice sites on the island were taken, one with a gigantic tarp and tent (like 8-10 person tent). No one was visible in camp at these times; it was drizzly but it was also around 5:30pm, a solid dinner time, and it wasn’t a great day to be out fishing, so I’m not sure where these groups were. Maybe still just hanging out in their tents, but it was frustrating to see.
We finally pushed up to the NW corner of LLC and found the 5star bay site open, much to our relief. We quickly went about unloading on the sharp super slippery rocks, not realizing the bay landing was available at the time, and got our shelters set up with about 30 minutes from landing to sunset. I seemed to struggle significantly with getting my hammock straps at the right angle, and almost touching the ground with the hammock, several times on this trip. I got better but I think it was just from having some far apart hangs and some very close together hangs, and constantly needing to figure out how high or low to put my straps on the tree. Still, I somewhat longed for the simplicity of a tent.
There were a lot of boats in the Snow Bay area. We got passed by 2 when we had almost reached our campsite, and saw another 5 before the night was over. The next morning, we saw 3 before 10am. Maybe it’s not that many boats, but it was relatively constant and not something I like hearing in the BWCA. As an aside, I did hear 2 boats on Gun, very distant though.
After a quick dinner in the dark with the boys, we retired early. The sun set around 6:45pm so we were ready for bed by 9pm most nights, though we stayed up later some nights when we had the energy or firewood. When it’s dark for so long, though, you better have something to do (like a fire or games), otherwise you’re gonna do a lot of sleeping. I can’t complain about 9-10 hours of sleep in canoe country but it was a definite change of pace compared to our usual June trips where the sun is up around 5am and down around 9pm. Daylight logistics were actually a bit of a theme for this trip, as were weather/travel day logistics – more to come on that.
~Upper Pauness Lake, Lower Pauness Lake, Loon Lake, Lac La Croix
We shoved off again right around 10am, to much bluer skies with some clouds – it was quite bright actually! We were able to make it around a big beaver dam in the channel to North Lake, and paddled through with no issues. This was one of the most beautiful paddles of the trip with trees of all colors surrounding us as we paddled among the now-red lily pads. I was quite hopeful to see a moose back here, but it was a little late in the morning at this point, hot, and our group was still a bit chatty, so no moose. Maybe later!
Our first portage was to Steep Lake, and it lived up to its name. I remember telling myself to just focus on breathwork and keep my heart rate in check. I made sure to pace myself and breathed in through the nose and out through the mouth, keeping my max heart rate just under 165bpm. Some portages (on other trips) have pushed me into the low 180s, which is obviously quite strenuous and shows just how out of shape I am. I never got that high on this trip, even on the steepest of climbs, so I’m actually pretty happy about that. Before we knew it, our double carry of Steep was done. This lake was also beautiful with some cool pinch points and distant elevation, of course with the fall colors mixed into the hillsides.
After Steep we hit Eugene and then Gun. I don’t remember that much distinct about Eugene, but I do remember it being pretty, and we saw some swans through a shallow point which was cool, especially since we saw zero loons on this trip (to our dismay). I will say that the entire section from North to Gun felt remote, wild, and so beautiful with the fall colors rising high on the surrounding hills. I think it was my favorite stretch of the trip. I remember telling my canoe partner that I thought South/Eugene would be awesome lakes to spend a few nights on if you just want to camp and aren’t worried about fishing or extensive exploration. They just had that beautiful wild feel to them, and I think they probably see relatively little traffic.
Gun was pretty cool, but our sun turned to clouds, and wind had picked up a bit. Thankfully we found the pinch campsite vacant, and went about setting up shelters and a group tarp. The plan for the trip was enter, move, camp, move, camp, move, camp, move, camp, exit, so we had a layover day at each campsite except the first. Well, we managed to stay the two planned nights on Gun at least! A golden sunset and some whiskey by a small fire was a nice way to relax after two days of travel.
~North Lake, South Lake, Steep Lake, Eugene Lake, Gun Lake
Curiously enough, with the heat, there were many bees out at our site, some of which were not content to leave us alone after initially investigating. I managed to swing somewhat gently at an oncoming bee which must have been positioned perfectly, and I got stung right in the wrist. I haven’t been stung in quite some time so I was careful to monitor my breathing and heart rate just to see if I developed any sort of allergic reaction. Thankfully I had nothing but some swelling, and later some itching.
To cool ourselves down on this hot 80 degree humid day, one person decided they were going to swim, and we all followed suit. I donned my PFD, undies, and sunglasses, and hopped in the water. There is a nice ledge to climb on to get in/out of the water so I was fine going barefoot, as I didn’t want to wear my Boundary Boots, nor my dry camp shoes. Otherwise I do like wearing shoes when swimming, but it turned out fine. The cold, maybe 55-58F water, was just what I needed. I stayed in for probably 15-20 minutes, really letting the water soak up a bunch of heat, and got out and moved slowly. Still, after going shirtless and putting a shirt on 30 minutes later, I was almost uncomfortably warm less than an hour after going for a swim. I had a day like this on Cherry where we day tripped to Lake of the Clouds. The humidity was almost suffocating that day.
Another night of whiskey by the fire was just what we needed. Curiously we saw a few mice, which I’ve only ever seen once before in the BWCA. Then something fell on one of our buddies, possibly a small pine cone, but it really freaked us out as he thought it was a mouse climbing on him or something. Well, give it another few minutes of chit-chat and staring into the fire and it was like it never happened. We headed to bed around 10pm knowing we had a long travel day to Gebeonequet tomorrow.
Beartrack was cool but maybe a little bland, as it’s a big round bowl, with few points or islands to create intrigue. Plus we were trying to haul and make it to Gebe so maybe we just didn’t fully appreciate it. This is also when we noticed a group materialized behind us. We left the gorgeous landing in the little moosey-looking bay and headed to Thumb. Some folks have warned of this portage, but I found it quite manageable traveling east, and with all of the open mossy areas, it too felt like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. The group behind us was two dads with three young boys with nothing but food and fishing rods, day tripping from Fat to Finger, and we let them fly right past us (we were double carrying anyway). I honestly think the Thumb portage was one of my favorites of the trip – call me crazy!
We finally paddled through a channel into Finger and I was smitten. Points, islands, bays, reeds, big rocks, towering pines… what’s not to like!? I felt a momentary sadness knowing that I wouldn’t be able to spend any time here, and that it’s not easy to get to, so another trip to visit it will have to be very intentional, specifically to spend time on Finger. Still, I enjoyed its beauty as we paddled to the south island campsite, hoping it would be open for a shore lunch.
There we found the group of dads and kids, who asked if we wanted to camp there, and I said no, we were just hoping to check it out for lunch but would find another site. The one dad said we were more than welcome to join them, and maybe out of a selfish desire to check out the site that I knew was highly rated on this lake I hoped to return to, I took him up on his offer. There was a nice landing for both canoes and we reviewed the remainder of our route while we chatted with the dads (who were from South Dakota but now live in Nebraska). They told me when they were younger, they went from EP14 to Finger, counterclockwise, in a single day… I just about fainted at the idea of that much travel on what I thought to be a moderately rugged route, especially after I did all of the portages to get there, later in the trip. If those guys are reading this, thank you so much for your generosity and sanity check on the rest of the travel to Gebe!
I was a little concerned about low water in Finger/Pocket/Gebe Creeks, but thankfully we had enough water to paddle most of the time, with only the occasional touching of the soft muddy bottom. We (I) made a slight navigational error and took us into a small bay where Finger Creek flows out, as I couldn't tell if the portage landing started there or on the west side of the peninsula. No matter - it set us back 5 minutes. The rapids on the Finger Creek portage were a real treat, and with approving nods from the group, I couldn't help but make the walk back to take some photos.
The final portage of the day was the staircase to Gebe, and it still lived up to its reputation. Honestly though, it’s quite pretty, and the sound of the falls adds to the ambiance. Just keep pushing, focus on your breath, and it’s over before you know it! Too bad there is an entire petrified tree blocking the already-boulder-blocked landing on the Gebe side. That made loading interesting.
Tired, hot, and sweaty, we managed to snag the primary 4star site on Gebe (NW corner) with its shallow sand flat landing, with enough daylight to set up shelters and take photos of the sunset during dinner, after about 8.5 hours underway. I hadn’t mentioned yet, but we did dehydrated dinners for the entire trip. They pack down small, you don’t have to do dishes, and they’re dead simple to prepare, so you can spend your time fishing/exploring instead of cooking and doing dishes. I love a good meal, more than most I think, but on canoe trips, I prefer to spend my time doing literally anything other than cooking/eating/cleaning which are just time sucking chores for me.
We were able to have a fire thanks to the previous campers who left us enough wood that we actually still had some left over afterwards. Boy oh boy is it nice to find some firewood at the end of a long day where you don’t have the energy or time to find and process firewood. The moonrise caught us off guard, too, rising slowly on the horizon as a blood red crescent. At first we didn’t know what it was because it was so red. By the time I had the camera set up on a tripod, the moon had risen to be more of a deep orange, but it was still super cool, and I got some nice photos. We stayed up late, shared some sips, and gazed at the stars. It was another tiring but rewarding day in canoe country.
~Little Beartrack Lake, Beartrack Lake, Thumb Lake, Finger Lake, Pocket Lake, Ge-be-on-e-quet Lake
While having our dehydrated breakfasts, we looked at weather forecasts. It seems that today would be sunny but windy, with gusts up to 30mph – a great day to hang out at camp and maybe go for an exploratory paddle if able to stay mostly protected from wind. However, the following three days looked like rain and thunderstorms, with winds still gusting in the 30s. After a half-hearted “we could move today” suggestion, the group decided that’s what we were going to do. While I wanted to spend some more time on Gebe after my 2019 trip, it seems it was still not in the cards for this trip. We also did not see a moose on Gebe which others have reported. Bummer. Probably just not getting up early enough.
We packed up and got on the water shortly after 10am, which wasn’t bad considering we had planned on a layover day so we weren’t being particularly quick about anything. We knew the travel day to Hustler wouldn’t be as long as the previous day, so we had hopes of having time to get firewood before sunset.
The portages from Gebe to Oyster were not that difficult themselves, but the landings were absolute trash – low enough water for most of the rocks in the obvious landing path to be shallow enough to stop/scratch the canoe, but not low enough to provide suitable alternatives, so you had to scratch the boat a little in order to not get out in knee deep water. Also, each landing was, IMO, suited to only a single canoe if you want to be able to load/unload safely (i.e. not precariously perched on a single slippery rock/log). Traveling with two canoes definitely slowed us down a lot on this trip where most landings only had decent spots for a single canoe. I think the most difficult portage of the three from Gebe to Oyster was Gebe to Green, as it had some elevation. Still, I don’t remember much besides a very large white pine close to the Green landing. All of them were tricky due to poor landings.
The wind was really starting to build, and we had to put some effort into paddling across Green, pretty much going straight into a south wind. Things changed when we hit Oyster though – we were going to be slammed by the south wind when passing the “opening” on Oyster that separates its northern channel from the southern bowl of the lake. We stopped and assessed our options. A new weather forecast showed that the wind was going to continue for the next 6 hours, so there was no point in trying to wait it out.
I got some help loading from the guys in the other canoe, and we shoved off into the bay keeping station while we waited for the other guys to get loaded up, which took them a hot minute with the waves slapping up against the canoe. When we all finally pushed into the lake, we quickly had to quarter against the waves to safely ride over them. It took us 50 minutes to go a little under 2 miles, so we really struggled to get across. The waves coming through the opening were pretty sizeable, but the gusts were just as challenging, occasionally requiring the bow paddler to quickly switch sides to help keep the bow pointed in the right direction. Thankfully we made it to the Hustler portage landing without incident after getting behind a point that shielded us from 90% of the wind.
You know, maps aren’t always accurate, so it’s not a surprise that the Voyageur map had some errors in portage lengths, but given how long the ones from Hustler-Oyster and Lynx-Ruby have been around, I’m a little miffed that Voyageur had these so wrong at 240 rods each. They’re listed much closer to 300 rods everywhere else, and my Garmin watch tracked us at 0.94 miles for the Hustler-Oyster portage, which is pretty much 300 rods dead on. I told my group I thought these were longer than 240 but didn’t quite know, and I was right. Thankfully this portage wasn’t actually that tough, just long. Some sections were straight and flat for 20-30 rods at a time which was appreciated. The landing on the Hustler size is absolutely massive (big smooth rock) but in a bit of a boggy area.
My group was fairly spent from fighting poor landings and strong headwinds, and ready to grab the first site available, which is right next to the portage. I had read many good things about a 5star site on the northern shore of Hustler, and it was only a 15 minute paddle away. I nearly begged my group to check it out as we had come so far, and it was the only site of the trip I actually had a vested interest in staying at. Sure enough it was open and gorgeous, and we were running out of daylight, so everyone just went about setting up shelters, with very little chatter.
The clouds were rolling in and it looked like rain wasn’t far off. Unfortunately, the wind had not let up. This site is so beautiful largely in part due to it being right on the water, with towering red pines that give the campsite a very spacious feel. The downside is that, with the amazing 270 degree views of the lake, you also get 270 degrees of wind, and it was blowing straight into our site all night. Thankfully I stayed warm but my hammock tarp was flapping pretty strongly throughout the night, and I legitimately worried about tarps failing during the night. They all held up (and stakes in the ground!) so we were glad to see that in the morning. Our night was uneventful; we didn’t have firewood and we were beat from the days of travel, especially the mild sunburn and windburn we all had. We had a moderately nice sunset despite the clouds, but night fell quickly and we all had some unspoken anxiety about the wind overnight. Sleep came easy but I didn't get much rest with the wind flapping and stressing tarps all night long.
~Green Lake, Rocky Lake, Oyster Lake, Hustler Lake
We decided to look for another site on the lake that was more protected from the wind, so we packed everything up and headed out. We first went to the south site which had a nice view and cute firepit, with some interesting tent pads, but it was too small for a group tarp for us to hang out during rain, with a poor landing, so we decided to check another site.
We went back north through the east channel and checked out the site tucked in a bend, which had no ratings on the two sites I checked. I expected it to be bad if it wasn’t rated, but it was actually not terrible – just not flat at all. The landings weren’t too bad, hammocks and tarps weren’t an issue, but the two best tent pads still had a few degrees of slope to them. The only true flat ground was at the firepit seating row, which couldn’t fit 4 of us in our ultralight chairs that we always bring. I don’t always expect to fit 4 of those chairs in a small space, but it’s especially tough when you’re all trying to stay under a single ~12x12’ tarp on a rainy day. Thankfully, the wind was massively reduced at this site, having shifted to be mostly W/NW. We also had a pretty sweet view of the overlapping points of the channel to the main body of the lake, so overall I actually kind of liked this site (as someone who didn’t have to sleep on the sloped ground).
With the remaining few hours of daylight, we just hung out at camp and tried to get a group hangout station set up for the next day which was forecasted as nothing but clouds and on-off drizzle. I tried to dry a few things out, but it was a bit futile as rain kept coming and going, so I had to micromanage my topquilt on the clothesline. This reminds me that I haven’t mentioned my damp sleep situation yet.
You see, our tarps were still wet on the morning of day 2. I either didn’t even think about it, or didn’t think it would be an issue, but I put the tarps in with the rest of the sleep/survival gear that they get packed with, inside a dry bag/liner. My canoe partner’s stuff was compartmentalized into individual dry bags inside the main pack, but my quilts and hammock and pillow were in the main body of the bag, and absorbed a decent amount of moisture. I woke up in the middle of the night on nights 2 and 3 with my hands wet just from touching the topquilt. Nothing worse than clammy hands in the hammock. I hoped stuff would dry out but it just never had much time set up to actually dry.
I was chilly on the windy first night on Hustler, with the wind getting between my underquilt and my hammock, which robs you of almost all warmth. Thankfully it was still a relatively warm night, but tonight on Hustler was looking to get down into the low 40s, maybe even upper 30s, so I was quite happy to be more protected from wind. I actually had my best night of sleep this night on Hustler, after a little stargazing and astrophotography on a somewhat bafflingly clear night (given such tumultuous skies just hours prior).
Indeed, this evening on Hustler was actually quite excellent! The wind died down, the rain stopped, and the clouds cleared. The stars really came out, which I didn’t fully realize until I went down to the water right before bed to fill up quickly. I exclaimed to let the group know, being pretty sure everyone had already gone off to bed already, but no one joined me. Their loss! I knew I had to get my camera and take some photos, and I ended up with some really nice shots. It was just me and nature down there by the water’s edge, with a light ripple of water on the rocky shore, and the dense core of the Milky Way looking positively inviting.
During one photo I heard a wolf howl, and then another, and then an entire pack. There was yipping and growling and some more howls. When the silence fell I stayed still, wondering if I would hear more. The wolves couldn’t have been far, maybe a mile or two. What a cool feeling. Out of all the animal sign we saw on the trip, I don’t think I saw any bear or moose scat! Just three or four piles of wolf scat along the route. Wolves are another BWCA treat for me, and though I have never seen one, I’ve heard them a few times and it’s always magical. Like an owl hooting away, it reminds you how surrounded we are by life, of all sizes and shapes, even in the dark (spooky!).
I headed off to bed feeling quite full – recharged. A bit of a challenging day, weather wise, everyone sitting around camp wishing we were out exploring or cozied up on the couch at home, and then it ends in clear skies, bright stars, and a pack of howling wolves. This trip truly was full of ups and downs, and while we had many moments of annoyance mostly from weather, we also had many moments of awe and peace. It’s hard to know how to feel about this trip, because we did get a bit demotivated by weather and some physical fatigue/foot issues, but we also had some really nice paddles, nice campsites, nice sunsets, almost complete isolation, and good company to boot.
We went off and found some surprisingly decent firewood, which of course we had to split down into small pieces to get at anything dry. The on and off rain had soaked everything small, so fire building was not trivial and really did require split logs to get at the dry center. Unfortunately, the wood wasn’t dry enough, and what fire we did have quickly turned into a smokeout, with the light breeze pushing the smoke right in our faces. We ended up standing around a lot of the day, still putting more wood on the fire, because… fire? We put in the work so we wanted to benefit from it.
The entire rest of the day was spent avoiding smoke in the face, eating, and cracking jokes. We actually had some brief moments of intense sunshine that poked through intricate layers of clouds, which served to nicely light up some of the distant colors on the shoreline.
After a day of trying to huddle under a tarp that can't fully cover 4 guys in chairs from drizzle because of a small space and inconveniently located boulders in the ground, we were ready to move on from this site, so we stayed up until about 9:30pm and called it a night, hoping to get a good night's rest for our hopefully easy travel day to Shell. Before heading to bed, however, we decided we would exit a day early, on Saturday instead of Sunday. We’d all enjoyed the nice weather and colors, but we’d had our fill of the wind and rain, which is what the rest of the trip was going to be anyway, and we all didn't mind the idea of getting our Sunday back to relax and decompress with a roof over our heads.
The portage from Hustler to Ruby is a gorgeous little number! Easy landings and a short, easy trail, with a little rapids flowing through. We saw two guys headed in for three days and wished them a dry future. The portage from Ruby-Lynx is rated as an 8.5/10 difficulty on the Voyageur map and I have to say, I thought it was much easier than that, maybe a 7/10. If it was the last portage of the day and you were doing it in the other direction (carrying gear east), then you’d have a lot more elevation to climb, and it would be more of a bear. Still, not technically difficult, just long.
We absolutely flew down Lynx with a 15mph sustained tailwind, with gusts to 39mph (according to the forecast). In fact, we had to be quite mindful of the waves building up behind us, that we essentially surfed on. By the time we got to the south end of Lynx, they were probably 3ft rollers that were probably one or two mistakes away from swamping us. We made a plan to “eddy out” behind a point on the lake, opting to paddle a bit out of the way but keeping us at a 45deg angle to the waves, so as not to be broadsided by the beautiful but intimidating waves. Paddling into those waves and wind would have been a nightmare. My Garmin GPS clocked us at 6mph with that tailwind though!!
Thankfully we paddled right through to Little Shell and did a final short portage into Shell. Weather was blue skies with a mix of puffy and ominous clouds. Sound was howling trees. While we wanted to check out the sites on Con Island, both were probably bad choices with the wind at the time. We opted to check out the first site, on the east side of the lake, and thankfully it was open with workable tent pads. We had skipped lunch due to the short travel day, so we did what we always do:
1. Chair 2. Feet 3. Shoes 4. Food
Not too long after we finished eating, it looked like it might rain a bit on us, so we donned our rain gear. However it passed just by us, so we took the rain pants off but kept the jackets nearby. We had some intermittent drizzle like we did on Hustler, but most of the rain clouds blew past us, probably 5-10 miles away judging by placement above the far shoreline. We were again mostly protected from the cold wind, a protection which we came to heavily appreciate at the tail end of the trip.
It's funny; the first few days of the trip, we were all so hot, we wanted to use our comfy cold gear we all brought, but knew to appreciate the warmth while we had it, knowing we’d likely prefer some heat later in the trip. Sure enough, the high winds from the north blew in temps in the mid 40s, and the drizzle made sure to keep everything just wet enough to stay cold from the windchill. While the tent pads were nothing special, my canoe partner and I got our hammocks set up just a little bit back into this dark, damp young pine grove, and it was perfect. I wasn’t bothered by a single breeze back there, which I’m sure was also in part due to me actually tying out the “doors” on my hexagonal tarp to help block as much wind and spray as possible. It was a nice calm spot to have our final night.
We spent the remainder of our time finding and processing firewood, to give ourselves a nice long fire on our last night. Whiskey had been running thin on this trip, and the final night didn’t see much left despite the rationing. It goes surprisingly quick when you have ~3-5oz per person per night! The whiskey disappeared quickly that evening, but we enjoyed a nice long fire, and I even made up one of the dehydrated desserts I had brought as breakfast (Blueberry Peach Crisp from Backpacker’s Pantry), and it was freaking delicious.
The stars came out one final time to say goodbye, and this time they were brighter and clearer than any other night. While we didn’t have a southern view to see the setting core of the Milky Way, we still had a panoramic expanse down by the lakeside that provided some beautiful views and photos. I got some of my favorite astro photos on our final night, and I spent probably 30 minutes down by the water, in the dark, just chatting with my canoe partner, reflecting on the trip. It was serene, but with the overtone of that slight restless feeling you get when you know it’s your last night. It’s bittersweet in so many ways and this time was no exception. The stargazing, photos, and real talk down at the water's edge left a lasting peace in my heart, and I went to bed happy.
~Ruby Lake, Lynx Lake, Little Shell Lake, Shell Lake
We got up earlier than any other travel day, to make sure we could meet the outfitter at our new 2pm pickup time (as opposed to planned 3pm for Sunday). At an estimated 5 hours of travel, with an hour of fudge factor, our goal was to be on the water by 8am, 8:30am at the latest. We weren’t sure how much of a slog the Shell-Pauness portage was going to be, so we were eager to get it behind us.
Our paddle on Shell was fantastic. Glassy. Foggy. The crew was mostly silent paddling through the quiet wilderness, feeling like we had this lake all to ourselves like every other lake before it. Man, how we wished we could have had more mornings like this.
Thankfully we hit the long portage to Pauness before it started raining. The portage itself actually isn’t too bad, but the beaver pond closer to Shell requires fully loading the canoe, paddling 5 strokes, avoiding some shallow rocks and logs, and then unloading and finishing the portage. It adds about 10 minutes to each group, and one has to wait for the other, so in total it added an extra 20-25 minutes to the portage as compared to what you’d expect for a ~200 rod portage (~20 minutes each way).
Not until just after shoving off onto Upper Pauness (again opting for the 40rd portage) did the sky open up. It proceeded to dump probably a quarter inch over the next 20 minutes, with some high winds that legitimately chilled my hands to the bone. We didn’t have our rain pants on, and I told my canoe partner that if it continues like this, I’m going to put them on just to keep some heat in, because with cold rain and wind like this, you legitimately need to think about hypothermia and heat management.
Thankfully the rain mostly stopped shortly after entering the river, and returned on and off. We paddled uneventfully to the Elm portage, where it rained on us again. The rest of the paddle out was pretty calm, and we made it to the entry point with only about 15 minutes to spare, which is closer than we usually like to cut it when getting picked up. Still, we made it!
We couldn’t help but be just a little annoyed that we managed to mostly avoid the rain and keep our stuff dry in the second half of the trip, only to have everything soaked in the final hours. Mother Nature just wouldn’t let us go without a spiteful kiss goodbye. I think this served to make everyone even more glad we were exiting today, giving everyone a free Sunday at home to relax and dry things out and catch up before heading back to work, which made the VNO showers and Boathouse beers and burgers that much more rewarding.
~Lower Pauness Lake, Upper Pauness Lake
Trip was good. Not great! But not too bad. The weather was quite dynamic, with the first half of the trip in the upper 70s and even low 80s, with high humidity the whole time as well. It was actually hotter than most of my early June trips. In the second half of the trip, it shifted to windy, and at the tail end, we got more rain on and off, but just enough to keep stuff damp most of the time. We got to see a lot of the fall colors we wanted (though they dulled considerably halfway through the trip), and we got to do the full route I really wanted to do; we just didn’t quite get the desired “sunny and crisp” fall weather we all hoped for, so the mood of the trip changed a bit as a result and it was more about rewarding endurance than rewarding exploration.
As a result of the dynamic weather, my group opted to move on the sunny travel days (which are also sometimes the windiest days), which broke the travel-camp-travel-camp methodology to the route that I had originally planned for 10 days. We stayed night 1 in the NW corner of Snow Bay, nights 2 and 3 on Gun, night 4 on Gebe, nights 5, 6, and 7 on Hustler, and night 8 on Shell, to exit a day early on day 9, instead of 2 nights on every site except the first one of the trip. This moved our exit up from Sunday to Saturday, which gave everyone back their Sunday to decompress, unpack, and spend time with family, before going back to work. We’d enjoyed the trip, but it was mostly just going to be rain if we stayed another day (indeed it rained on the moved-up exit day; we just weren’t allowed to stay dry!), so we all agreed to leave early, and we were all glad to get out.
Some group members had issues with their footwear, which kept their feet warm but slid around too much, leading to blisters. I was sweating so much the first half of the trip that my neoprene Boundary Boots would start to slosh towards the end of the day after working hard. Gross but true. The more frequent than planned travel meant that our group was a bit more worn down than anticipated, and combined with the crappy weather, one of the guys said we weren’t able to really get in the groove of the trip, and I agree. We didn’t get to do as much fishing or exploration as we wanted; in fact, we didn’t go out for a pleasure paddle a single time on the trip. Don’t get me wrong, it was still beautiful out there, but with constant wind with high gusts and unpredictable rain, it’s tough to really enjoy it since you’re stuck on shore, under a tarp or in a tent, and you don’t want to be moving in the rain if you can avoid it. Staying dry was a big priority for us, not just for hypothermia concerns (at the end of the trip) but just for comfort. I learned just how much it sucks to get into a damp hammock with a damp topquilt on this trip (as the result of forgetting to keep the wet tarps outside the main portage pack compartment so as not to soak into all of the dry stuff).
Not only did we have to handle rain, but wind as well, with 12-18mph sustained and around 35mph gusts on several days. I feel comfortable paddling in higher winds as long as I’m able to get where I need to go without a severe detour (in order to cut into the waves instead of being broadsided). Thankfully we were able to handle high winds mostly since they were near-direct headwinds or near-direct tailwinds, but we did encounter some dangerous waves. With the wind continuing all day and only dying down around 9pm, we pretty much had to travel with that wind whether we wanted to or not. It could have been more dangerous and certainly more limiting. When at camp, wind was still more of a factor than usual for me as well.
I came to really appreciate wind protected campsites, which I normally don’t pay much mind to when considering a site. In the spring, I almost always want a breeze through the site to help keep bugs at bay. Chilly fall winds, on the other hand, are something that will quickly wear you down, especially when combined with rain; even just drizzle is chilly and draining. That highly rated northern campsite on Hustler is gorgeous and has an amazing panoramic view of the lake, but that meant wind from almost any direction can blow right in there. We were at the end of our desire to travel when we arrived at Hustler, so we pushed to the site, knowing it was supposed to be nice, but didn’t consider or care enough about the wind at the time (which we should have). Next time I’ll definitely try to think this through a little bit better.
This trip, more than average, was a trip of give and take, and I think my last few trips’ worth of good weather and campsite karma finally caught up to me. I think I will still remember this trip fondly in a “made me stronger” kind of way. It did have its “why do I even like coming here lol” moments, but with many “I am one with the earth and sky” moments as well. You have to take the good with the bad when you are out in nature with no hard shelter, no amenities, and I’ve had so many good days out in the BWCA that I try not to fuss about the bad ones, but just prepare for them and hope they are offset by good days. Of course, right after we exit, pressure stabilized and now the weather is steady and crisp like we were hoping, just not with any red left on trees!
This was my first peak color trip and I suspect it won’t be my last, but perhaps I will be a little less ambitious with the route to give us more downtime to appreciate our surroundings. Our new crew member had his first time be one of our worst for weather, fishing, and challenging terrain. Despite that, he said he might not be opposed to coming back, if it’s for less time, and involves a lot less travel. The whole crew got briefed on possible routes back in January, and this is the one we picked, so everyone should have known what to expect (as I am quite forthcoming with details, as much as people care to listen to!). Sometimes, though, the trail hits harder in person than on paper.
* We saw a lot of swans! Like, maybe a dozen? Maybe a few more? Pretty awesome.
* We saw mice at every single campsite, something I’ve only ever seen at one campsite before – maybe warm weather is required so they’re not active in June?
* I got like 2 mosquito bites. Nice.
* I got stung by a bee though!! Come on!
* Cold swims on humid days are awesome.
* No one got seriously injured.
* I didn’t catch a single fish, and probably only threw 50 casts the whole trip, if that. Thankfully my canoe partner caught a few smallies on Gun, with the biggest actually being a nice 3 pounder! Bright ball jig and curly tail grub.
* We still had way too much food at the end – most cheese didn’t get eaten so we had probably 6lbs of cheese alone across all of the lunch kits.
* Definitely good to have full rain gear immediately accessible to put on in a canoe if necessary, when rain is in the forecast.
* Put your wet stuff outside the container with your dry stuff! Duh… (or maybe get a spare big dry bag or two to put dewy/wet tarps into)
* October is definitely a good time for isolation – not counting the people we saw exiting on our entry day, or people entering on our exit day, or the people we practically shoved off with on the morning of our entry day, we saw:
** 1 canoe on Loon
** 1 boat on Loon
** 2 occupied campsites on LLC
** 1 canoe on Beartrack/Finger
** 2 canoe group on Green
** 1 canoe on Hustler
** 2 occupied campsites on Lower Pauness
** The only group we actually interacted with was the canoe of dads and boys day tripping from Fat to Finger; the only other group we hit at a portage was a group of two canoes exiting on our entry day who let us launch into Lower Pauness instead of trying to cram into the landing during a rainstorm. Much obliged, gents.
--A Parting Anecdote--
The canoe launching at EP14 with us was a three person, with maybe what looked like an older father/mother/daughter crew. They had seen us up at the parking lot unloading the VNO van, just cycling through grabbing more stuff and placing it in a corner away from everyone else’s stuff (as there was a crew exiting at the EP at the same time too). When I arrived at the river landing with the canoe, the man said to me, “Boy, you guys look like a machine looking for a place to go!” I like to think he was complimenting our organized process and not saying we looked like bleary-eyed gear haulers on auto-pilot (lol).