BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 18 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1324 feet
"This trip will be taking off from Fall Lake up through Newton Falls portage onto Pipestone Bay campsites. 3 day, 2 night trip into the wilderness.
2010 Fall Lake Loop
August 09, 2010
Number of Days:
This section discusses the background and planning process for my first trip.
I don’t really know how this became the thing for me to try. I went on a couple of river canoeing day trips when I was in high school (more than half a lifetime ago), and I’ve been interested in the concept of canoeing ever since I moved to the Land of 10,000 lakes (more than 10 years ago). In the past few years I’ve taken up photographing my young daughters, and I occasionally have gotten the inkling to point my camera at landscapes and celestial bodies. Boring suburban landscapes and light pollution put a damper on such activities where I live. I was feeling a bit pent up at work, and I became obsessed with escaping artificial lights and artificial ways of life. I also became uneasy with just how little outdoorsy stuff I do with my girls and my complete lack of ability to teach them anything useful in the ways of enjoying nature. So, I guess I do know how I became interested in exploring the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Not one single thing, but the combination of several little things.
So I wrote to my buddy, Matt, in Dallas one day in July 2009 and asked if he would be interested in tackling some kind wilderness adventure with me – totally out of the blue, and totally out of our comfort zones. I knew that he would be the only person in the world in front of whom I could flaunt my incompetence at camping and “survival” while I attempted to learn those two skills. I also knew that he was at a similar skill and fitness level as myself, and the years we spent living together and even doing some cross-country travel gave me confidence in our compatibility on a trip such as this. I gave us more than a year to do whatever preparation was necessary, and I began to do some basic research.
I got a few books from the library about the Boundary Waters, and I bought a book called “Exploring the Boundary Waters” by Daniel Pauly. As everyone here knows, this book lays out and describes a bunch of different routes and talks about all you need to have a successful trip. From that book, I chose several candidate routes and was able to select a target route based on options that it provided. What I chose was a five day “intermediate” trip that we would have the option of shortening should we get out there and decide that we couldn’t hack it. The trip would begin at Fall Lake, and we would have two portages to Newton and Basswood Lakes on the first day. If we couldn’t handle the portages and/or the paddling, we had options to stay on Newton or even Fall Lake that first evening.
When to go? It was July of 2009 when Matt and I decided to try this, and I wanted to give us at least a year to get ready (and potentially come to our senses). That put us some time after July, 2010. From my reading, I understood that the first couple of weeks of August were the most popular times to visit the Boundary Waters as the lakes would be at their warmest and the black flies might be on the down-swing. I kind of liked the notion of seeing other people and groups on our first trip – just in case… July might be really hot, and September could be really cold. I wanted to choose a week when the moon was new so as to maximize my opportunity to see a truly dark sky and landscape. The new moon in August was set to begin on the 9th in 2010, and the Persides meteor shower was scheduled to peak on the 12th of that month. That pretty much set the dates of our trip in stone. We would depart Fall Lake on the morning of Monday, August 9, and we would travel until Friday, August 13.
As far as equipment was concerned, we decided pretty much immediately to go with an outfitter for all of our gear and food. We selected the Kevlar canoe which was $100 more for the five days but also 20 pounds lighter. I knew the money was well spent even before the first time I hoisted the canoe on my shoulders. We didn’t really decide on personal gear until the week before the trip. I opted for two pairs of pants that converted into shorts, a couple of T-shirts, a few changes of underwear, some cotton and wool socks, a rain suit, and a sweatshirt. Footwear was a big question, and I struggled with the “right” decision up until the moment we got in the car to head up north on August 8. I ended up bringing an old pair of tennis shoes for camp and a pair of well-supported sandals, and it ended up being a good combination for this time of year. I had every intention of bringing a swim suit, but I forgot to pack one in my bag the day I left. I brought my DSLR camera with two lenses and my tripod with a couple of spare batteries and a remote timer. We brought our own bug dope, sunscreen, toothpaste, and a bunch of zip-lock bags. I also had purchased my own Voyager map of the area (though I knew we would get one from our outfitter) as well as a simple orienting compass.
The unknown and my lack of skills and experience were my largest sources of anxiety. Our fitness level was a minor concern as I knew that we could always choose an easier route once we got on the water. I knew the map of the area in which we would travel quite well after many, many evenings of study and route/contingency planning. I learned how to use my orienting compass the two days prior to the trip. I felt very comfortable traveling on the correct bearing with knowledge of where we were and where we wanted to go, but I was less comfortable if we should find ourselves lost and need to find our location. I was also very concerned about rope tying but not concerned enough to do anything about. I did a little searching on the internet and checked out a book from the library, but I never really bothered practicing. I figured we could probably figure out set up the tent with which we would be provided, but there was a little anxiety there. I was very unsure of paddling technique (in river canoeing that I had done, we pretty much just went with the flow), but Matt seemed overly confident. I figured that we would get into some kind of groove after being on the water for a bit. Weather is always a concern in Minnesota, but I also knew there was nothing we could do about it. The rain suit was all I could do to prepare. I was really concerned about capsizing on the big lakes that we would be visiting, but I was resigned to allowing ourselves to be wind bound should the waves get too big. It wasn’t really a concern, but I really had no idea of how fast we could paddle. I knew the map and the route, but I had no idea of timing, so I just resigned myself to planning for a bunch of different scenarios and adjusting once we got out there.
Matt and I both ended up getting ourselves in a little better physical condition than we were on that day in July 2009, but it was nowhere near where we thought we should have been. I got first aid and CPR certified by the Red Cross, but that was really the only other training that I had done. I wanted to learn and practice swimming strokes in addition to taking a more formal course on canoeing, but I found time for neither of those in the year I had to prepare. How sad is that? I know that Matt was really concerned about the portages and his knee holding up. Again, I was prepared to be flexible and simply not over-do it.
Overall, however, I felt quite unprepared for the trip on the day we left.
We left the Twin Cities at around 1:30 PM and made a stop to get Matt a rain suit and some snacks for the drive up. We got to the outfitter (VNO) in Ely at around 6 PM, and they immediately took us through their orientation. We first went over our planned route with the owner, John, and he pointed out some recommended campsites along the way. We weren’t doing any fishing, so much of his knowledge and skills were not applicable to us. Next, we went through all of our equipment and food with “Dave” who was vastly knowledgeable and set our minds at ease. We had three packs: One for our food and kitchen utensils, one for our camping equipment (tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, stove, and fuel), and one for our personal stuff. Talking to Dave and getting our questions answered put our minds at ease regarding a lot of the equipment. No one seemed to look at us and think, “Man, these guys should NOT be doing this,” so that also set our minds at ease a bit. We brought our stuff up to the bunkhouse and went to get dinner in downtown Ely.
We went into Ely in the morning and had breakfast at Britton’s. The Veggie-stuffed hash browns and eggs over-easy were the perfect way for me to start the day. We loaded our personal pack – took out stuff that we didn’t want to bring, and went down and loaded the rest of our stuff in the van. One of the staff took us out to Fall Lake, and we put in from the dock. We paddled out onto Fall Lake feeling a little rickety at first but found our stride by the time we got around the large island. We could see other canoes near the falls once we rounded the corner, and we could even hear the falls. The portage trail was easy to spot, and we got there faster than I expected.
The first portage was not so bad. After putting in to Newton lake, we paddled around the north side of the big island per the instructions of our outfitter (though we didn’t see why we couldn’t go around the south, which was shorter). We saw our first bald eagle, and it was starting to heat up a bit. Another canoe passed us as we were nearing the next portage, and we followed them to the portage trail to Basswood Lake. The beautiful falls could be seen and heard from the trail, and I got a picture of Matt by the falls. We were feeling very confident about the day as we set into Pipestone Bay.
We knew navigation would get more difficult with all of the islands, and we needed to be on the look-out for an inlet on the west side of the bay. The wind was pretty calm and the temperature was continuing to climb. We overshot our inlet and then combed the coast for it on the way back. Once we found it, we stopped at a campsite and had a simple lunch (granola bars, trail mix). It was a nice campsite, but I wasn't really scoping it out at the time.
I had been told that the channel between Pipestone Bay and Jackfish Bay was passable by canoe, but a major beaver dam proved that to be incorrect – we would need to take the portage. This was our first “real” portage trail. It was questionable for a while if it was, indeed, a portage trail after the previous two (which seemed like roads in contrast). Very rocky and muddy in some spots, and it was difficult to traverse. Made it to the other side, and the next order of business was to restock on water. We paddled out of the cove and headed directly for the middle of the lake to get some water. Matt used the steri-pen, and I the pump, and we loaded our containers (and bellies). After about another half hour of paddling, we got to the camp site that I had picked out from a positioning point of view (excellent view of the western shore).
We set up camp – first was to hang the food pack a bit off the ground (so as to avoid little critters which, we were told, would be very interested –never happened). The tent gave us a little trouble at first, but was easy once we figured it out. The sun was still high in the sky, and the camp site was very hot. We went for a dip in the lake, and that was very nice. We fried up some steaks for dinner and then took the canoe out to get some more water for the camp. Once back, we cleaned up camp, hung the pack up high, and Matt escaped into the tent to get away from the mosquitoes which were getting heavy at dusk. I tried to stay out to wait for absolute darkness (with the new moon and all), but I couldn’t handle it with all the bugs. I got into the tent and went to bed thinking I might get up if I wake up and it’s really dark. I did wake up and saw the beautiful stars, but I was too lazy to get out of the tent (“I’ve got all week…”).
I woke up and got a few pictures from the campsite. The bugs were a little better and continued to subside as the sun came up higher and higher. We had an awesome breakfast of hash browns, eggs (3 each), coffee, and bread (we couldn’t really figure out how to make toast). We cleaned the dishes, packed up camp, and got a fairly late start on the lake (but we knew we had a short day). The wind was up a bit, and the waves made us quite unstable. We just had to make it across Jackfish Bay to reach a channel that would take us to our next lake. The wake of a few motorized fishing boats in combination with the wind gave us a few close calls in terms of tipping, but we made it to the protected channel dry and happy.
On the first short portage along the channel, Matt’s sandal disintegrated in the mud. Major bummer. Matt was not in a good mood by the time we got to and across Sandpit Lake. The portage from Sandpit to Tin Can Mike Lakes was a bit longer than I had anticipated, but it was in pretty good condition. By the time we got to the landing at Tin Can Mike Lake, there was a larger group just taking off (we could hear them and their aluminum canoes from a portage away). We took our time getting the rest of our gear and stopped to have another simple lunch in the shade on the portage trail. We got back on the lake, filled our water containers, and found our recommended camp site fairly quickly.
This was a beautiful site, and a lot less buggy. We got the tent set up away from the bush (in hopes of avoiding bugs at night), hung the food pack, and Matt started on the fire. With the fire going, we each took a dip in succession. It wasn't a great site for swimming as the visibility was pretty low, and the rocks were covered with a slippery algae. It enabled us to get rinsed off and cooled off at least. We had a great dinner of mashed potatoes, corn, and bratwursts. We boiled water all day long on the fire and used some of it to clean our dishes. We went out on the canoe for another water run before the sun went down, and it was beautiful. I could tell that it was getting too cloudy for any useful photography at night, and I went to bed within an hour or so of Matt retiring (and complaining…).
We woke up in the early morning hours to rain falling on our heads. We got up and attached the rain fly to the tent (it was too hot to have it on there if we didn’t need it). Rain started coming down harder as day broke. Matt asked what we should do, and I said that we should travel. He was unconvinced until we started getting water in the tent. I put on my rain suit and started packing up camp outside while Matt packed up our sleeping bags and mattresses inside the tent. We pushed off at about 7:30 or so after an easy breakfast of bagels and dried fruit. The rain had died down a bit.
Between the rain and Matt’s lack of desired footwear, it was pretty clear that we would try to have a big day today and be able to avoid a fourth night of camping. We only had to paddle about 10 minutes before coming to the portage between the Tin Can Mike and Horse lakes. The landing was decent, but the mosquitoes were out in full force. We unloaded quickly and got on the move, but the entire trail was pretty buggy. The landing on Horse lake had even more mosquitoes, and my rain suite didn’t seem to stop them from trying to bite through. We kept moving in our hot rain suits just to minimize our time with the bugs.
We were very glad to be on Horse Lake, and we then set on to find the mouth of the Horse River which we did in about 20 or 30 minutes. The river was beautiful. Because of the rain, I had packed all of my camera gear in water proof bags in my camera bag, and I packed the camera bag in our personal Duluth pack. Short story: no pictures during the day. I had expected three portages, and I had expected it to take us the better part of the day to get down the Horse. It turned into four portages with a few very shallow parts that we probably should have portaged around. The portages were muddy, rocky, buggy, and hot. But they weren’t too long – it was just a lot of packing and unpacking. Our paddling time on The Horse was actually quite short with the portages coming faster than I would have expected. By then end of our final portage on The Horse, we were really done with the bugs. The final push into the mouth of Basswood River was filled with lily pads and reeds.
We were VERY happy to finally get to Basswood river and (finally) escape all of the bugs. We didn’t see anybody on the Horse River. Hmm… We made it across the wide bay of the Basswood River and were at the Canadian portage around the beautiful falls in no time flat. This portage was short but in TERRIBLE condition. Overall, I was glad we opted for the short portage, and the bugs were non existent (I don’t know if it was time of day or location). After our first trip with the canoe and our personal pack, we decided to have lunch in Canada at the bottom of the falls around which we were portaging. I was really bummed that my camera was on the other end of the trail, but I wasn’t so disappointed that I wanted to run back and get it. Lunch and the lack of mosquitoes were good for our spirits.
Once we pushed off from the top of the falls, we were gearing up for our final (we thought) big (more than mile long) portage. Originally, I had anticipated possibly finding a camp site along this stretch before the big portage. The sites were beautiful (with beautiful views) and unoccupied, but we didn’t even discuss staying. It was early afternoon, and we knew that we could sleep in a real bed on Thursday night if we were able to finish the big portage today. This was, by far, one of the more beautiful stretches of the trip, though.
We got to what we thought was the big portage within about an hour. Matt led the way, but the trail just led us to a campsite after just a short time. We stumbled around a bit and then finally put our stuff down to check the map. Yep. This was just one short portage before the big boy. We had to put back into the river for just a short distance to get to the big boy. So we did. Another group was sitting at the landing and resting.
We unloaded, and Matt’s knee was killing him. We sat and drank some water before pushing on. I knew we were in for a long one when after about three minutes I passed a kid coming the other way who asked me in a desperate voice, “how long have you been on the trail?” When I told him “just a few minutes” I could tell that he was quite relieved – he was almost done. The trail was O.K., but there were some steep and tricky spots (hopping from stone to stone across a little creek, for example). We were both pretty damn tired by the time we got done with our first trip, and this was the busiest portage trail that we encountered on the trip. We slowly pushed back along the trail which now seemed difficult without any packs. The chaffing had also begun to make walking a little extra uncomfortable (lesson learned: bring Vaseline or something for the inside thighs). I had to stop on the way back to rest as our equipment pack was killing my back. That was the most sore part: my back muscles. I pushed on with Matt in front of me, and I don’t really know how I did it. One step at a time.
When we got to the landing of Basswood Lake, we were both pretty happy. It was getting a bit late in the afternoon (4 PM or so), and a couple was just landing their canoe and equipment (they were going to have a LONG evening). Matt and I put in and started passing full campsites much to our disappointment. We wanted nothing more that to get to an empty camp site so that we could get our chores done and collapse. The only saving grace was that every paddle we took now was one fewer paddle we would have to take tomorrow. We finally found a campsite that was within view of another, but it was available and the mosquitoes were down. There was a beaver hiding under a big rock as we landed our canoe, and we heard him all night jumping into the lake and swimming over to the dam just a few hundred feet off of our site.
Matt tried to build a fire, but the day’s rain had rendered all of the choice wood pretty useless, and it was also clear that neither one of us were going to be up much later than we had to be and enjoy a fire, so we aborted. I set up the tent, and Matt set up the kitchen. Tonight was lasagna night with some kind of raspberry torte dessert. Both were prepared with boiling water in the pouches, and nothing has ever tasted so good. We lay down on the rock next to the lake and rested our back muscles and wondered how we would ever get up again. After a quick clean up of the few dinner dishes, Matt made his preparations to go to bed. I stayed up and got a few dusk photos and set up my tripod for some star trail photography later that evening (the clouds were finally pushing off to the northeast). I went to bed and fell asleep quickly.
I woke up naturally a little after midnight and could see that the stars were out in full force. I made myself get up and check out the stars after setting up my camera. My tripod was set up from the evening before to give me the framing that I wanted for my star trail shot over Canada. I spend about an hour taking photos including one 30 minute exposure. The humid air, however, resulted in massive amounts of condensation on my lens, so the 30 minute (and even 15 minute) exposures were pretty much useless. The best I could do was a high ISO 4 minute exposure. Drat! Oh well. Lesson learned. I did see a bunch of shooting stars as I sat out and gazed for about an hour. It was a lovely way to spend my final night.
I went back to bed a little disappointed about the condensation, but I was very tired. I woke up to the sun beating down on the tent. It was hot, but it still took a while for me to want to get up. Had it been cool, I probably would have slept another three hours. We got up and packed up quickly as our camp site provided no shade (and we were not in the mood to set up a tarp the night before). The bugs were getting a bit bad as we sweated through the pack-up, but we were on the water and fairly comfortable within an hour or so of waking up. We were almost an entire day ahead of schedule, and we had every intention of getting off the water that afternoon.
A few navigational issues had us doubting ourselves at first, but we eventually figured the correct way back to Pipestone Bay without having to do much extra paddling. The final stretch to the portage to Newton Lake was a bit of a heart breaker. There was a strong head wind and neither one of us had much energy to paddle quickly. I called the outfitter from the middle of Pipestone Bay at about 10:30 and told them we would want a pick up at Fall Lake at about 2:30. The portage trail from Basswood to Newton seemed longer and steeper and less road-like than the first time we were there, but we knew we were nearing the end.
We divided up lunch at the landing to Newton Lake before we pushed off. This was now familiar territory, and we took the shallow short cut around the south of the big island on Newton lake to save us about 15 minutes. It was fine, but I was glad we did not choose that route on our way out (it was good to have some experience before navigating really shallow and rocky terrain). A motorized fishing boat caught up with us at the portage landing, and Matt and I readied ourselves for our final portage which, again, seemed steeper and less road-like than before. We put back in to Fall Lake and reached the landing just after 2 PM (we were really dragging). The van pulled up after we waited for only a few minutes, and the driver gave me the coldest and best can of Hamm’s beer that was ever been in existence. Thank you!!!! The chill of the beer was beat only by the shave and shower I was able to get in back at the outfitters’.
Reading these notes nine years later reminds me of some of the difficulties of the trip. Overall, I am thrilled that I went on the trip, and I am thrilled that Matt did it with me (he might be less thrilled). I loved experiencing the wilderness, and I really wish we could have stay a night near Basswood Falls in retrospect. I think I was quite pleased with the decision at the time, though, so no regrets. I feel blessed to get to experience such natural beauty, and I can't wait to go back with all that I learned.