BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 27
Elevation: 1356 feet
Trip Recall -- Bear got the food we got carrot sticks & Jolly Ranchers
June 20, 1990
Number of Days:
FIRST THE BACKGROUND
I am writing this report so that I can document the most ill-fated trip I have taken anywhere (and that includes having the eye of a hurricane pass over us on a sailing trip).
In that gap between college and the real world I wanted one last shot at the BW. The only one I could convince to go with me was my girlfriend of a couple years, Justine. She had never been camping before let alone on a demanding trip like the Bdub.
I remember thinking it was odd that a mere couple of weeks prior to leaving I was able to get a permit. I was always under the impression that permits were hard to get. We would later discover why mid June is not a favorite amongst BWCA veterans.
ON TO THE TRIP I remember leaving the Twin Cities early in the morning. Our trip north included the traditional stop at Tobie's in Hinckley and introducing Justine to the biggest best cinnamon rolls ever. I also remember she spent quite a while in the gift shop, only to come out with a coffee mug. Yup, this trip was going to be different from the all guys type of trips I was used to.
We arrived at the Canadian Border Outfitters about midday (later than I had hoped). This was my first time leaving through Ely = my previous trips had been through the Gunflint trail. The folks at the outfitter were great and helped us pick out a nice route. We wanted a 2 day paddle in, a day of layover at a nice location, and a 2 day paddle out.
The outfitter I had used in the past always sent us out with an aluminum food pack. Canadian Border used a Duluth pack with a cardboard sleeve and assured us it would be fine if we hung the pack at night. I had actually brought a pulley along for hanging so figured it would be OK.
We started out with a tow on Moose Lake. We then paddled through Newfound Lake, and through Sucker Lake to the 5 rod portage into Birch. Having a novice in the bow, the tow was a great decision to help us get the big water behind us.
Right from the start Justine proved to be a trooper. This may have been her first trip but she wasn't afraid to jump right in. Much to my surprise she wanted to take the canoe across that first portage. I know it was only 5 rods but I was impressed none-the-less. Remember, this was before the days of Kevlar.
After that first portage Justine was amazed by the beauty and solitude of the Bdub. She was thrilled to be there and I was confident that this was going to be a great trip.
On our way to the Birch into Carp portage it started to sprinkle. The rain would be on again-off again the entire five days we were there.
As we approached the portage we learned why most experienced Bdubers avoid mid June. The clouds of mosquitoes came out to greet us. We had bug repellent but no screens. Nothing hurries a portage along like a swarm of blood thirsty insects. I decided to take the food pack and the canoe while Justine took the main pack. We single portaged in good time and got back out on the water where the bugs weren't as bad.
Repeat twice more as we make our way into Knife.
I was hoping to get further but our late start dictated that we camp on Knife that first night. We got camp set up just in time for heavy rain. In a small break in the weather we managed to squeeze in our first meal of steaks, corn on the cob, and potatoes fried in tinfoil (which didn't cook through very well).
Moose Lake, Newfound Lake, Sucker Lake, Birch Lake, Carp Lake, Melon Lake, Seed Lake, Knife Lake
We awoke to a light drizzle. No Power Bars back then and I didn't have a camp stove so oatmeal required a campfire. We had a warm breakfast but we also had another late start.
We headed further east on Knife towards the portage into Bonnie Lake. It was just before the Bonnie portage that I got a very sobering reminder of how scary the BWCA could be. A pair of canoes came paddling over to us. A dad and son were in the first canoe and a wife and daughter in the other. You could see from the look on the dad's face that something was wrong. He was lost. Completely utterly lost and asked for my help. I remember asking him where he thought he was and he pointed to the wrong spot. I asked for his map, rotated it 180 degrees, then handed it back to him and showed him where he was. I pointed out several landmass markers for him to identify and you could see the relief wash over him.
At the time I remember feeling proud in front of my girlfriend. My navigational skills were good enough to help someone else. Today, as the father of a family that fits that of the lost dad, I can't help but admire the dad for doing the right thing. He checked his ego enough to ask for directions. I only hope I was decent about it when I set him straight.
We made our way into Bonnie. More mosquitoes and more single portaging (had to keep impressing the girl you know). From Bonnie we portaged into Spoon and from Spoon into Dix.
We had hoped to make it to Vera Lake and set up a base camp there but 2 late starts in a row prevented that from happening. We portaged into Skoota hoping to grab a site there and save the big portage into Missionary for the next day.
Both sites on Skoota were taken so it was back to Dix. We chose the island campsite there. Clearly this site didn't get used much. Long grass was everywhere. The result of the long grass was a tick check that revealed more than 10 ticks per person including some in some very private areas. As boyfriend/girlfriend one would think that might be kinda fun but when your girlfriend is a little put off by ticks and you are both dead tired it isn't exactly sexy. For obvious reasons we dubbed that campsite Tick Island. It was the only night of the trip where it didn't rain.
Knife Lake, Bonnie Lake, Spoon Lake, Dix Lake, Skoota Lake
After a quick breakfast of GORP this time we finally got an early start.
Back into Skoota then that 180 rodder into Missionary. We single portaged it but had to stop and rest several times.
Again, it was an on again off again kind of rainy day.
From Missionary it was a short hop into Trader then another short hop into Vera. It was only midday or so but this was supposed to have been our layover day so we decided to stop at a very nice campsite there.
We decided to have a hot lunch of pizza pudgy pies. I thought they tasted great. They didn't sit well with Justine. Several trips into the woods later and she would swear off pudgy pies for the rest of her life.
We decided to clean ourselves up a bit and I remember it was easy jumping into the water but not so easy climbing out. I think we had a shower bag with us but we used the lake instead, convinced that our no-nitrates, environmentally friendly soap made it OK. Again, remember this was 20 years ago.
Shortly after getting clean we decided to head into the tent. It was mid afternoon but it started to drizzle again and the mosquitoes were simply unbearable. We scratched some games of hangman into some cardboard and brought carrot sticks and Jolly Ranchers into the tent to snack on.
CRASH -- GRRRRR
We flew out of the tent just in time to see a flash of black fur running off with our food back. We knew to hang it at night but this was in the afternoon! We waited a while, debating what to do. On my last trip we had met some portage clearers who said you should throw rocks at the bears to scare them off. Rocks in hand we went the direction that the bear had gone. After tracking her for a ways we found where she had opened up the pack = debris was scattered. The pack and the bear however, were no where to be seen. The only things we salvaged were the pots/pans, an egg container (with a bite mark but no eggs), and a can of spaghetti sauce that she had bitten down on but not through (I know, no cans, but I hated the powdered stuff and we always packed the can out with us). I don't know if the aluminum pack would have helped in this situation or not.
Taking inventory, all we had to eat for our 2 day paddle out were carrot sticks, Jolly Ranchers, and that can of spaghetti sauce. We had no matches (they were in the food pack only = a mistake I no longer make). We had no food pack so the one consolation is that I wouldn't have to take a pack and the canoe across portages. We put the little food we had in an empty bread bag we had picked up and hung it from a tree.
By then it was starting to get dark so we went to bed early in order to get a quick start the next day. We had barely fallen asleep when we heard the whine of a bear cub just outside our tent. THE BEAR WAS BACK. At this point I got ticked. I remember yelling something like "You've got our food you WILL NOT get our Jolly Ranchers". I charged out of the tent and grabbed a pan to beat on which scared them off. Now you know why I called the bear a "she". We now knew it was a momma bear and her cub. Suddenly the advice to throw rocks at them seemed like a really bad idea.
2 or 3 more times that night they came back. We didn't sleep a wink but we did manage to snap some pictures of them.
Before dawn broke we had camp packed up and we were on the water at first light. Dix Lake, Skoota Lake, Missionary Lake, Trader Lake, Vera Lake
It was another long portage into Ensign Lake. It went quite easy given the lack of a food pack.
Again the rain was with us all day.
At one point on Ensign we stopped at an occupied campsite to ask for some matches. They seemed a little put off which struck me as odd. We didn't ask for any food and they didn't offer. I know people take just enough food for themselves so I didn't begrudge them that but I didn't think a few matches was asking for too much.
We pushed hard and made it to the Ensign into Splash portage. It was so short and the water was so high due all the damn rain that we decided to paddle the canoe through the little creek that connected them. It worked like a charm. In fact, it worked so well that we tried it again at the Splash into Newfound portage.
This time the creek had some rapids to it so we took the pack out and decided to shoot the rapids with just us in the canoe. It started out well but I can still see the tiny little edge of a boulder that caught the bow of the canoe and turned us sideways. Once we were sideways I knew we were in trouble. I tried to use a pry stroke to get the bow back downstream but we hit some rocks. The canoe tipped and the paddle I was prying with launched me out into the rapids "sans canoe". I bounced off of several rocks before reaching the slow water where I could stand up. I looked up, and there was Justine, trooper that she was holding a canoe full of rushing water so that it wouldn't go through the rapids. I told her to let go and I caught it at the bottom.
We were lucky! I got both paddles back and we, thankfully, still had a dry pack at the top of the portage. All we lost was a cap. But, inside Justine's rain coat pocket was a puddle of water and our disposable camera...you know...the one with the bear pictures. The only injuries were my two bleeding shins.
We paddled into Newfound Lake and then to the edge of Moose where we had to camp because it was getting dark. We heated the can of spaghetti sauce and dipped carrot sticks into it.
We again turned in early.
Vera Lake, Ensign Lake, Splash Lake, Newfound Lake, Moose Lake
THE FINAL PUSH We ate the last couple of Jolly Ranchers as we paddled out at daybreak.
Our mantra for the entire paddle down Moose towards the outfitter was "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger". I don't know why it was a cheeseburger...it wasn't steak...it wasn't lobster...there was only 1 thing we wanted and it was a big ol' greasy cheeseburger.
Canadian Outfitters did not let us down. When we got to the lunch counter they had about 20 things on the menu and 10 of them were different kinds of cheeseburgers.
We had to pay for the lost food pack but we put it on a credit card then reported it stolen. The credit card company actually paid for it!
We got the camera developed and some of the pictures turned out...the bear picks did not.
My shins still bear the scars of not being able to get my feet out in front of me before hitting the rocks.
As for Justine & I...she is now my wife of 17 years. She still camps though she has not been back to the Boundary Waters. Our kids are old enough now that next year I can see a family outting into the Bdub. I think we will avoid Vera Lake.