BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 09 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1237 feet
Stuart River - 19
Mission Angleworm: A PMA Adventure
May 27, 2020
Stuart River (19)
Number of Days:
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
7 am, Tim arrives at my house and we head off with the canoe on top of the car headed to pick up Craig and Kyle. We stop at Tobies in Hinckley and decide that if we get COVID, we know where it came from: this gas station. Nobody there was wearing masks or keeping distance at all. In fact, in contrast to the previous month and a half, it seemed like COVID was no more. Anyway, we got our donuts and resumed our journey.
Before noon we go through the DQ drive thru in Ely and drive to the International Wolf Center and eat at some outdoor tables. From there, the short drive up the Echo Trail to the Angleworm entry point to drop off the (royalex) canoe. We rented a second canoe from Echo Trail Outfitters, so we drove over to pick up the second (kevlar) canoe. A brief panic attack when I thought I forgot the life jackets at home, but after a couple minutes I finally remembered I hid them in a storage compartment. Phew!
Now to begin the adventure! I had chosen the Angleworm entry point because I really wanted to take on the challenge of a 720-rod portage. And I thought that after we complete that, a PMA will be simple! I volunteered to take the (heavier) royalex since it’s my canoe. Tim volunteered for the Kevlar. Kyle volunteered to drop off the car at Stuart Creek (our exit point) and bike back to Angleworm, then take the oars and rods. That left Craig with the food pack which is never fun on the first day, not to mention the 720-rod aspect. We decide the only way to attack this beast is to single portage, so these are all in addition to our own packs, of course. And right before we leave, a couple emerges from the portage, apparently having hiked it. Eyeing our canoes, they give a little giggle and say ‘have fun!” Despite this foreboding warning, we were ready to attack the portage!
The portage itself is not bad. I’m loving being back here again, the backdrop of the pandemic making it that much more enjoyable. We end up taking 3-4 breaks along the way. We started around 1:30 and made it to Angleworm at around 2:45. A few notes about the portage: Generally, pretty easy except for its length. The boardwalk over spring creek is a bit terrifying as it is 4 feet or so off the ground and has a 90 degree turn in the middle.
Before you reach the beaver pond, you must veer right at the fork. The left trail appears to be the old trail that got flooded by the pond. Speaking of the beaver pond, here it is:
At the fork closer to Angleworm, make sure you turn left. Luckily I was ready for this fork, so knew to go left when we got there. Lastly, it’s not obvious where the put-in is. We opted for the earliest put-in opportunity, prior to the first campsite. It seemed a little clunky, so not sure if it was the official put-in, but it was definitely the shortest!
We collapsed on the ground when we got there, and awaited Kyle who was on car drop-off duty, so started the portage probably 30-45 minutes later than the rest of us. I had made the poor choice of Chacos for this initial portage, so had numerous blisters on my feet. I was a little nervous waiting for Kyle. I never like to split up, but given the 3 of us had a lot of extra weight to carry and we were starting in the afternoon, we didn’t think we could afford to wait. Luckily, after 30 minutes or so Kyle shows up and we are ready to finally dip our paddles in the water.
Angleworm was enchanting. I don’t know why. Maybe the 720-rodder had something to do with it. But the narrow lake and steep shorelines made for enchanting views. We passed a campsite on our right that we all agreed looked ‘cozy’ and almost stopped for the night. But, knowing that we wanted to enter the PMA tomorrow, we thought it best to carry on a bit farther.
Before you know it, we were at our next portage. Of course the portage to Home is a breeze compared to what we have already accomplished today. I am itching to get even closer to Beartrap, but the other guys are ready to settle in. The other canoe scouts the single campsite (besides the hiking campsite) on Home and they are ready to call it home for the night. I’m good with this too--after all, the Angleworm portage was my idea, not anyone else’s!
We set up camp, me with my hammock, and the others with their tents. Side note: this was slightly inefficient since we had two 3-person tents (they sleep 2 comfortably) plus my hammock setup. I could have just gone in the tent, but I sleep so much better in a hammock.
This is a nice site. Great sunset view of the lake, lots of tent pads, great firegrate placement. Only downside was giant gardner snakes. They don’t both me, but a couple others in the group evidently have a fear of snakes. But they seem to be able to let it go.
We go for a swim and it feels great to wash off all the sweat from the day. While we’re swimming I reveal that I’ve brought a ‘secret item’ as an appetizer for dinner. Since we’re all getting hungry, this makes the others quite excited. We play a rousing game of 20 questions where they eventually figure out the secret appetizer is ‘pizza biters’, as inspired by the Tumblehome podcast.
They couldn’t be happier with the surprise. So we go make dinner and the pizza biters are a perfect appetizer to the steak, mashed potato, and pepper meal.
After dinner we break into the boxed wine. Well, not only do we break into it, we finish the entire thing on the first night! Well, less to carry tomorrow!
With all the talk of how busy the BWCA was going to be, we saw nobody today after leaving the parking lot. It was a great first day, we have the monster portage behind us, and tomorrow we finally get to enter the PMA!
~Angleworm Lake, Home Lake
Thursday, May 28, 2020
Woke up and put on some water for coffee. It rained a couple rain drops last night. I opted not to put up the rain fly, so good thing it was no more than that! With adrenaline and caffeine coursing through our veins in anticipation of the PMA (pristine management area) today, we pack up quickly and head to the portage to Gull.
This portage seemed fairly long, which I was surprised about given it was much shorter than our portage yesterday. But when we reached the end, we found the most glorious landing, perfect for jumping into the lake. So even though it was morning and we had a long day ahead of us, we just couldn't resist. We all took the opportunity to jump in and then headed on our way again.
We saw a tent in the distance, the first sight of other people since we’ve started. We had a bit of trouble finding the portage to Mudhole. I can’t remember why exactly except that we found ourselves in the campsite just to the west of the portage, but we do eventually find the portage. Through Mudhole and into Thunder. On Thunder we ended up paddling right next to another couple who had left their campsite on Thunder to do some fishing in Beartrap. They had been there for a week and were set to leave soon. We portaged one after the other into Beartrap and found ourselves fighting the west wind across the lake. The lone campsite was open as we passed by it. This campsite seems like it would be great to stay at, it seemed so remote! We easily located our first ‘unmaintained’ portage to the Beartrap River.
Here we go! About to start our first PMA portage. Since this was our first one, we decide to double portage for the first time this trip. We’ll take packs first, then come back for the canoes. Yes, the trail was overgrown and rougher than the other portages, but really not bad at all. We eventually emerge to a breathtaking view of the Beartrap River.
We make the trek back, grab our canoes, and walk the portage a third time. We take a quick lunch break on the other side and as we’re about to put our canoes in the river, we discover one of the life jackets is missing! Uh-oh, we assume the jacket is at the other landing, which means someone will have to triple portage. Not wanting someone to be alone, Tim and Kyle both go back for the jacket while Craig and I hang out and prepare the canoes for departure as much as possible. They arrive back quicker than expected, and reveal that they found it hanging from a branch about 2/3 of the way back. At least they didn’t have to go all the way back!
So we push off, and here we are! Paddling in a PMA! It was really cool paddling this really narrow, windy river.
After a couple minutes, it joined Spring Creek and got much wider. Still reveling being in a PMA, the paddle went quickly and in no time we made it to the portage alongside the river. As is our new process in the PMA, we scout out the potential trail a little ways before beginning. The first trail only went 50 feet or so, past the first set of rapids. But my pre-trip research had indicated a longer portage. So we looked for a different trail, and found one a little farther back from the first set of rapids.
This portage was very overgrown and very narrow. I do remember one particular part where I had to jump over a pothole puddle about 2 feet wide between two shrubs. This portage was much more difficult than the first from Beartrap Lake.
Rocks continued to litter the river, and we were required to get out and line the canoe a few times.
But then we reached the last winding part before Sunday Lake, full of beaver dams and oxbows. There were probably 10-15 beaver dams in this section of the river. It was really fun to paddle, and I’m honestly shocked we didn’t see a moose--it looked incredibly moosey!
By this time, morale in the group was getting a little low and so we were all incredibly relieved to arrive at Sunday Lake. Sunday Lake was nothing spectacular--pretty much your average BWCA lake. When we first got to the site, nobody wanted to say it, but we were… disappointed. We worked our butts off and the campsite was decidedly a 2-star campsite. In my research before the trip, I didn’t find much about this campsite, so it was probably built up in my mind. There was barely 1 tent pad, slightly slanted. The site was low, right on the water, unprotected, and pretty small.
Being that it was in a PMA, there was no firegrate or latrine. However, there is a giant boulder right on the water that actually serves as a very nice firepit.
We got camp set up, feeling pretty tired. After I got done, I had pulled no less than 10 ticks off my body. By this time it had gotten pretty chilly. Tim and I decided to go for a quick swim anyway. It was freezing cold, but worth it!
I had really wanted to scope out the old portage from Sunday Lake to Sunday Bay of Crooked Lake. Unfortunately, with how long the travel day was, I never got a chance to do so. I think it would be really fun to find that old trail.
Dinner was salmon, asparagus, avocado, and biscuits. We made biscuits in the Jello Mold Oven which I obviously learned on this site--the biscuits were a huge hit! It was the first time I’d ever used the JMO.
Since it was chilly and we were tired, we quickly went to bed. Our first night sleeping in a PMA. It rained for just a few minutes overnight again, but it worked out just fine.
~Home Lake, Gull Lake, Mudhole Lake, Thunder Lake, Beartrap Lake, Sunday Lake
Friday, May 29, 2020
Morning came and there was one thing on our mind: let’s get out of here! The campsite had not grown on us, and we eager to get to our next PMA campsite. So after a very quick breakfast, we were off.
My research ahead of the trip revealed that the portage out of Sunday into the Beartrap was on the north side of the river, not the south side as shown on this site. The portage was indeed on the north and easily found. Again, a fairly rough portage, but it was what we were expecting.
The Beartrap River is nice and wide in this area. After a few minutes of paddling, we got to the obvious location of the Sterling Creek convergence. Although it was obvious where the general location was, it was quite difficult to find the actual outlet. We found it on the third try--it was only slightly wider than a canoe as shown here.
We were a bit apprehensive ahead of the trip because we didn't find much about Sterling Creek. Would the water be high enough to paddle? Or would we be doomed to trudge through sludge? Well, the paddle down Sterling Creek was incredible. Definitely my favorite part of the trip! It felt so remote, you knew that few people paddled this. We lifted over countless beaver dams, but there was plenty of water to float the entire thing. How did we not see a moose here?!?
Again, I had done some research ahead of time so I knew the approximate location of the next portage but didn’t know exactly where it would be. Surprisingly, it was right where we expected it, before an impassable boulder-filled section.
What is shown on this site is one long portage to Sterling Lake (besides the lift over). However, we found it to be two separate portages. I did actually spend some time seeing if they connected, but it appears as if a beaver pond flooded the continuous portage years ago. So now there is a 2-3 minute paddle between both portage portions.
The second half of the portage was awesome. I loved it. It was rugged. It was technical. There were moose plums. You had to follow the cairns. If you like cool portages, make the trip to this Sterling Lake portage!
We had made it to Sterling Lake! It was beautiful, definitely enhanced by the fact that we knew we were the only ones here and had an island campsite reservation with our names on it! We decided to scope out the lake first. I had read that there used to be a campsite on the northwest shore of the lake many years ago, so we went to check it out to see if we could see any sign of it. The shore was pretty steep here, so there were definitely some nice views at the top. In fact, at the very top of the hill we found a large cairn. This intrigued us--does anyone know if the cairn is there for any particular purpose?
After not too long we were en route to the island to check out our new home. As the island came into view, the first thing you notice is the huge rock wall on the front end of the site. Turns out, it was a quite elaborate fire pit that has been built over the years.
Turns out that unlike the Sunday site, this one seems to be used quite a bit more! We found at least 3 tent pads and we even found an alternate firepit on the south side of the island. We weren’t sure why that would be there (although we may have found out why the next morning).
At the highest point of the island was a large flat rock area. Interestingly, there were about 8-10 rocks outlining a rectangle, causing us all to ponder why someone had taken the time to do that. I took a walk around the entire island and didn’t find any other secrets, but I didn’t look too hard!
Tonight it got very windy and very cold. We had pancakes for lunch. Then we had chili and made cornbread in the JMO. The bite in the air caused us all to turn in pretty early. I do recall talking about the moon phases and trying to figure out exactly how the moon orbits earth--stuff to google when we get back home!
Tonight I finally took the time to set up my rain fly. Boy am I glad I did! I was in a pretty exposed location high on a rock face and it got windy and rainy overnight. Luckily I did not get cold, but I was definitely kept awake by the rocking of the hammock and the noise of the rain fly flapping in the wind.
~Sunday Lake, Sterling Lake
Saturday, May 30, 2020
I finally convinced myself to get out of the hammock and back into the cold. I started making coffee, but the wind was just making it so chilly! So I headed over to the south side of the island where the sun was shining and I was shielded from the wind. Wow, what a difference! It was borderline warm!
I’m wondering if the west wind is common and that’s why the other fire pit location exists here. After some coffee, oatmeal, and donuts, we’re off on to our final two PMA portages.
We approach the portage to Bibon and prepare for another double portage. I quickly check my InReach and see a text message from my wife saying that the National Guard is in Minneapolis and that Lake Street is burning down. I read aloud the message to see if anyone else in the group can find the meaning in that message, but almost at once we are transported from the beauty of Sterling Lake to the unknown reality of whatever must be happening back home. We assumed it was related to the death of George Floyd a few days earlier (which we had spent a great deal of the car ride up discussing), but we had underestimated the impact it would have. And of course, when you get vague details in a text message, your mind is left to wander and typically imagines things as even worse than they are. Kyle is particularly concerned as he lives in Minneapolis.
But, nothing we can do now, so we make the second trip over to Bibon. This was a definitely a rugged portage, though still easy to follow for much of it. In the last third toward Bibon, the trail traversed a rock face that made the trail hard to find. Our first time across we didn’t go quite the right way, but it was easy to re-find the trail. Also, right near the Bibon landing it looked as though the trail had to be re-routed at some point as there was a false trail that dead-ended. The landing at Bibon itself was perfect. A couple nice, flat rock faces a couple feet off the water and even a crack between the two that you could set your canoe in and load up, also like the rock faces were docks. Bibon was a quaint little lake.
A quick paddle later and we were at the ‘portage’ to Nibin which was really just a beaver dam pullover.
In my trip planning I had wanted to see if I could find the old portage from Nibin to the Stuart River that evidently followed a stream/beaver bond in the southwest end of the lake. However, after two nights at PMA campsites, the rest of the group wanted to stay at a designated campsite on Stuart Lake that had a real firegrate and latrine in favor of using the PMA permit for White Feather Lake we had reserved. I am still curious as to whether or not that portage trail is usable.
So we searched for the portage into Stuart Lake, which was easily identified by a rock cairn on the shore. In fact, the first 50 rods or so of this portage is marked by numerous cairns as it traverses a swampy, then rocky area. The swampy part at the beginning was very wet, even considering the little rain that had occurred in the spring. After that, the scramble up the fairly steep rock face may have been difficult without all of the handy cairns--thank you, whoever you are! The second half of the portage was quite lovely, easily traceable and felt quite magical at times with downed logs and trees outlining the path through the woods. At the Stuart Lake end, the trail ends at a massive outcropping that would make this portage quite easy to find if coming from Stuart Lake.
And just as we expected, the solitude of the past several days was shattered by the sight of several canoes paddling from the river to the northeast end of the lake. In fact, we saw three separate groups paddle by just in the time we spent at the landing.
Feeling bittersweet that the most adventurous part of our journey had ended, we piled back in the canoes and headed to the cluster of sites in the northeast. Two were taken and two were open. We scouted the two and settled on the westernmost site, on a peninsula overlooking the entire lake. It lacked protection from the wind, but boy did it have a view!
The day was windy and partly cloudy, with giant puffy clouds covering up the sun on-and-off. We decided to go for a quick swim in one of the 5-minute periods where the sun was out. Brrr! Stuart was much colder than any of the other smaller lakes we had been in on the trip! Our swim only lasted the 5 minutes until the sun disappeared behind another fluffy cloud.
We spent most of the day relaxing and discovered the joy of whiskey lemonades while just hanging out. Wild rice soup and more biscuits in the JMO for dinner. We lasted as long as we could outside, but it was a chilly, windy night so we ended up hitting the hay pretty early. Side note: this site has the perfect bear tree.
~Sterling Lake, Bibon Lake, Nibin Lake, Stuart Lake
Sunday, May 31, 2020
We got an early start this morning--the only morning we really strived to do so. And let’s be clear: we left the campsite at 8:20, which others may not exactly consider to be an early start! Luckily the lake was calm as we paddled back across Stuart to the river portage. After the obligatory falls picture, we were on the river.
What a lovely way to exit (or enter) the boundary waters!
The river system was absolutely beautiful and the fact that there is only 1 entry permit per day means that you get it all to yourself as well. All in all it took us 4 hours from our campsite to reach the parking lot.
Along the way, we noted the stream to White Feather Lake, which indeed looked accessible at that time of year. We would have knocked about 2 hours off our exit time if we had camped there last night.
One of the more memorable parts of the journey out was the enormous beaver dam that requires a quick portage. Thing must have been 5 feet tall! Very impressive work by the beavers!
The 430-rod on the way out really wasn’t too bad, considering we had a 720 on the way in! The portage landing was tricky to locate--something just happened to catch our eye as we were paddling right past it.
Back in the parking lot, we were relieved to see the car there, and the joke about whether or not Kyle had left the car at the right location could finally be put to rest. We shuttled our rented canoe back to the outfitter while half of the crew waited at the parking lot. Then it was off to get some takeout from Ely Steakhouse. We ended up getting 4 Bucky burgers (of course), and ate them at a nice little park we found in Ely.
The drive back consisted of us all reading about the events that happened while we were gone and we realized that due to the curfew, Kyle would not be able to get home tonight. So Kyle ended up staying at Craig’s for the night, and would drive home the next morning.
It was a great adventure. And to be honest, I can’t wait to do a PMA again. I’m not so sure my friends agree, so it may be awhile before I convince them to do another PMA trip with me. But considering how busy everyone has said the BWCA was in 2020, it was definitely worth it to go a couple days without seeing a soul. If you have ever considered a PMA, this is a great one to start with as it is rugged, but definitely has defined portages and campsites.