BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 18 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1237 feet
Stuart River - 19
Old School Insane Stuart River
August 06, 2012
Number of Days:
I have a good friend who owns a small house in Ely. He allows us to stay there on our nights prior to entry. It's a great time. Each year we sit up late, play cards, re-pack all our gear and double check everything. This year we also watched the Olympics before hitting the hay. We had our permit so we could make an early start. Our group included my son, Colin (15), my daughter Hannah (18 and off to Luther College in two weeks), Hannah's college room-mate, Elyssa and my brother in law, Mike plus his fifteen year old son, Alex. Mike had been in the bwca one time, and Alex was an eager rookie. Colin has been hooked since our first trip when he was twelve. To say we were excited would be an understatement. We had no idea what lay ahead, but the night before we were all talk about killing that huge opening portage.....lesson time.
We hit the entry up the Echo Trail at nine a.m. We unloaded and Mike went to Big Lake Outfitters to rent one more canoe for him and Alex. He got an ultralight aluminum while we had two old, borrowed Alumacrafts. While Mike and Alex were gone, I sent Colin, Hannah and Elyssa on their way with the first of the packs. After getting more things ready, I took off following them. There is not way to adequately describe the opening portage to Stuart River. It is so long that it actually plays with your mind. As I walked along I waited to see the kids coming back, but they never did. I started to hallucinate that I heard their voices but...nothing. Then, at the very bottom of the hill, I saw them. They also looked shocked. On the map, this portage is an abstraction. Under your feet, it is a beast. We humped the packs along and then began wrestling the old school canoes. Kevlar riders must laugh at this, but we did not have the resources to throw at Kevlar boats, what with TWINS leaving for St. Olaf and Luther in two weeks. We went with what he had. Mike and I worked the canoes with help from the kids and we eventually (2.5 hours later) got everything to the river. On the first, five minute stretch before the next 90+ portage it began to rain.
Beaver dam one (out of three) was a marvel of engineering that one must see to believe. It was a good 4 to 5 feet high but we were able to follow a path at the side that others must have made. No unloads needed. We pushed on through all the portages, gradually wearing out and running out of water. We did not want to filter out of the river so we kept on going. When we reached the final portage to the lake (a steep, rocky number, but open) we were pretty beat. When I went back for the last gunboat, I almost wanted to cry and thought to myself, "I've lost my taste for this." Soon Mike showed and we joined together for the last portage. That night we enjoyed well-earned steaks (our first night tradition) with sauteed mushrooms on the island campsite that is very nice and accessible (and close to the portage)! Day one was abusive but we made it.
On day one, we started picking up walleye right away in the morning on leeches and spinner rigs. None of them were over 20' but they were game fighters. We got them right on the stretch leading from the portage to the island camp. After about an hour of picking up fish, Mike and Alex slipped around a corner of rock and returned with Mike saying, "Jeff, I lost the Leech Locker! It must have caught on some weeds and pulled over the side." A pound of leeches, all our bait gone in the first hour. We were bummed!!! I learned a lesson that day--always break up your bait into partials so as not to lose it all. After that, the week was all trolling and casting and we kept getting some nice number of walleye. Tail Dancers, Deep divers and Alex had particularly good luck with a firetiger colored "Flicker Shad". Until he lost it on our last night.
Mid day found us on a big, flat rock eating our usual crackers, venison summer sausage and kool aid. The weather was great and we were still getting enough fish to keep our attention. We were relieved at that! We fished that evening around the camp (the back of the island is also pretty good) and then enjoyed some smores and jiffy pop before turning in. Gorgeous weather, good fishing and solitude made this a great spot. All moods were good! We turned in pretty late after some fire time and good story telling.
Day three, and more fishing.....this day found us on the north side of the lake where we found good walleye numbers plus a few more northern near the rocky campsite (this one looked good too). In the morning it was pretty hot so we paddled to the falls by the falls and had a totally fun and hilarious swim/shower. We all laughed and scrubbed off the grime on under the refreshing water. Weather remained great, fish were cooperating (although more in spurts) and all was well with our troop. That night we laid out on the rock in front of our camp where we took in the most amazing meteor shower. This trip, after its horrific start, was turning out to be a dream. We couldn't have been having more fun. The beaver near camp showed up daily to slap tail at us and this night included two massive, prehistoric snapping turtles mating (we think) in the water right off camp. We could not think of any other explanation for the things they were doing.....
Day four and we finally saw another canoe--from a distance. It was very windy today so we never got off the island. We spent the day napping and playing eucker and blackjack in the tent. I started in on a good book. By evening the water was calm so we trolled a little while preparing mentally and physically for the day ahead.....We ended our week as we always do--with a fish fry of fresh walleye fillets. Delicious.
Up early--530 a.m. (We began our trek with high hopes since we knew what we were facing) and everything went well at the start. We developed a very organized system for portaging and we marveled at the time we were making. The dams were not too bad, and we did not have to unload to get over them--we merely teamed up on each canoe. Colin and Elyssa formed a paddling team and chose to attack the dams recklessly. It was funny to watch, but I was a bit worried and did not want them to tip. We push along doing great. Then we hit the 480 on the way out. O.M.G. We'd heard that most don't go out this way and now we know why. The portage being mostly uphill, we struggled our packs out part of they way (leap frogging) and went back for the boats. By now, we were so tired and dehydrated that every step was a struggle. Our positive attitudes were on the wane so badly that even when I reminded Colin about the Ely DQ at the end of our trip (another tradition) he replied, "Even Dairy Queen doesn't matter." We were whipped. When we had all the gear out with only one canoe left about halfway down the trail, Mike drove his canoe back to the outfitter and bought us all an ice cold bottle of water (made up for losing all the bait). We threw back the water and each of us six grabbed some aluminum and we triumphantly finished the deal. This portage is, in a word, brutal. A beast. We were tired, sore, muddy and grumpy. Elyssa had lost a Teva in a mud puddle so deep that she dive up to her elbow to regain it. We loaded for Ely and all three kids in my car fell asleep immediately. So....tired. At DQ we scarfed down a ton of food, showered at Dan's house, bought a gift certificate at Sir G's and hit the road. Home to Becker by 11 pm but then my left rear tire fell off the Buick while I took Elyssa home. I was bummed but relieved it did not happen on the interstate (or on the Echo Trail)!
In the end, Stu was as advertised. Brutal, beautiful and far from the crowds. The fishing was nice if you don't mind just catching eater sized walleyes who fight hard. Some were deeply golden and lovely. We only kept enough for one meal. I would definitely go back, but only with lighter loads (Kevlar) and smaller packs. We all felt a real sense of accomplishment despite the suffering (funny how the hard parts melt from you mind and the highlights remain). We did not see a ton of wildlife (the turtle porn was pretty funny) but the lack of people made us feel like kings and queens of our own personal realm. It was hard for Alex and Elyssa (first trip for both) and I kept reminding them that this trip was pretty over the top and hoped they would not be soured on a next trip. Neither seem to mind the grueling trip. Alex is my godchild and it was fun to bond with him. Elyssa will be Hannah's room mate at Luther this fall (freshman year) so it was a cool bonus to get to know her. The ladies really led with positive attitudes and hard work. It was fun to have another adult along in Mike. He is great.
If anyone wants to tackle this entry, I'd be glad to talk it out before you go (and bitch it out when you get back). All in all, we had a blast thought it was pretty much the most physically demanding thing any of us had done. Insane fun. Just the way the bwca should be in my book!