BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 24 2019
Number of Permits per Day: 27
Elevation: 1356 feet
Moose Lake - 25
Cherry is a cherry!
September 08, 2018
Number of Days:
This year (2018) I wanted to get back in touch with my outdoorsy self. It has been over a decade since I last went on a canoeing or hiking trip. I was a Boy Scout (could say I still am!) and I went to the BWCA once when I was 14 with a couple dads and sons, but I have not been since. After getting into astronomy and being reminded how rare and beautiful our planet is, I wanted to immerse myself in nature, and enjoy it while I still can (and I’m really glad I did). Thus, I decided to start doing research, buy gear, and plan a trip to the BWCA. I ended up planning two trips for 2018 with two different groups; one trip was 3 guys for 9 days starting June 1, and one trip was 2 guys for 6 days starting Sept 8 (planned to be 8, but thunderstorms cut it short). Both trips went pretty well, with a few hiccups each (to be expected).
In both June and September, we entered through Moose Lake and got outfitted by Williams & Hall (friendly and affordable). This would be my first time using an outfitter on a lake, so the experience was new to me, and I’m glad to say it was very positive.
Having almost all of the gear necessary, all we had to rent was the canoe, paddles, overnight lodging, and a tow in and out. W&H was very accommodating and we had no problems showing up to the bunkhouse at 11pm on Friday night after work, both times. The bunkhouse beds with the spring suspensions are OK at best, but I sleep better on my inflatable pad. The beds with the hard wooden boards were not good even with doubled-up cushions – I should have brought my pad in with me (even if I might not have been able to sleep well due to excitement anyway). In the mornings, we got up early, sorted our gear, stopped in the dining hall for a quick pancake, bacon, and eggs breakfast with OJ and coffee (perfect way to start the day), and brought our gear down to the dock to catch our tow. On the way back, we were each offered a cold beer or soda and handed a towel to take a much-appreciated shower. Their shower rooms are very nice and I can’t tell you how good it feels to even just rinse off with warm water and put on a clean set of clothes before you drive home. That cold beer sure hits the spot too.
The overall cost of outfitting through W&H was very reasonable when split between multiple people. Combined with the cost of gas up to Ely and back, and all the food we brought with us, it was less than $500/person for both the 2-person and 3-person groups. Pretty affordable for a week-long vacation if you ask me! I would recommend Williams & Hall to anyone who likes the idea of what I just described. They were easy to work with, friendly, had good gear, and seemed affordable or on par with any other outfitter for cost.
* Food *
For food storage, we used a 10 gallon blue barrel acquired on eBay. In June with 3 guys, we put that inside a large 110L MEC dry sack, which had more food in it. About 4 days into the June trip, we were able to fit everything in the barrel, so we didn’t have to hang the MEC pack at night anymore. In September, all food for 8 days fit into the barrel, and we used a LevelSix harness set for 60L which carried the barrel nicely. Those harnesses ain’t cheap though! I was thankful to be able to borrow one. In June we came back with about a third of the barrel full of food; in September we came back with half a barrel left - too many snacks and some high volume stuff like a brick of lard we ended up not using.
* Gear *
For everything else, a CCS Guide and GG Quetico fit all of the gear for both trips, being a little more compact for the 2-person trip. We had most of the amenities, including FlexLite chairs, a Silky folding saw, Fiskars splitting axe, and a group tarp, but we went as light as possible on our gear for both trips and were mostly successful. On both trips, every person had a day pack with personal items like toiletries, gloves, water, tackle, survival gear, camera gear, etc. We also brought 1 fishing rod each for both trips, though next year I think I will buy a second rod as my trip will be fishing-focused. We double-portaged everything and were about average for speed in both portaging and paddling, our travel times coming in roughly 10-20% longer than estimated on PP (which we knew were just rough estimates, of course).
September 8-13, 2018
* Route Overview *
The route we planned to take would show me scenery similar to that of the June trip also through Knife, but this time we went north. We planned to push to SAK on the first day (from the Sucker portage), then get to Cherry the next day, stay on Cherry for days 2-6, then head back down and stay on Knife on day 7 before heading out on day 8. Due to reports of possible severe thunderstorms for 2-3 days in a row on the latter half of our trip (thanks weather radio!) we decided to spend only 3 nights on Cherry before heading back down to stay on west Knife on day 5, and headed out on day 6.
* Route Duration *
PP says 37.7mi, my Garmin track says 41.2mi which is right considering areas where we made a mistake. Getting to Knife took us about 4 hours on the dot, just like in June. Getting to the SAK took us about another 4, landing us at our camp at 5:30pm, which was later than we had hoped. We didn’t have a crazy headwind but also no tailwind. Every site we could see, except for 1 we checked which was not a good site, was taken. W&H told us we should be even more isolated than the early June trip, which was the opposite in the end – I saw a lot of people in Sept, more than June. The travel up to Cherry took longer than expected because we missed a turn when looking for the portage from SAK, and the Knife-Amoeber portage was mismarked on the Fisher map so we wasted an hour looking for it (in an admittedly beautiful area however). The paddle from Cherry down Little Knife and NAK was excellent on a cloudy windless day in the mid 60s, trolling the whole way. The exit from Knife was not bad, except for finding an alternate portage around Seed (I think) leading us along a path we didn’t recognize, where we ultimately found the right path. We also had a strong headwind on the paddle back down Carp and Birch, but thankfully it was almost directly in our faces, and we didn’t have many whitecaps, so we just powered through it and were still 2 hours early for the tow.
* Route Difficulty *
I would say this route would be fine for beginner to intermediate types as far as difficulty and endurance go, as long as you prepare for a long paddle down to the SAK or stop earlier on Knife, and prepare for one or two hilly portages (Knife-Amoeber was the worst of the route and it could have been a lot worse I think). There is some big water that requires care when dealing with wind, but it's not too bad. There are also no really difficult portages as long as you stay away from Cherry-Hanson. Wind will be a limiting factor on Knife as it was for my group in June.
* Trip Log *
I will be transcribing and paraphrasing what I wrote in my journal during the trip, but also elaboration/reflection after the fact. I didn’t write for the final 2 days, so I’ll be filling that in from memory.
Got up at 5:45am to the alarm on my cheap waterproof Casio wristwatch. Slept poorly due to wooden bunks with thin pads. Got ready quick, waited for friend “F” to unplug the 10 things he was charging overnight. We saw a crazy reckless driver on the way up to Ely, and even called 911 to report him because his driving was that dangerous (swerving with I swear 1ft of clearance). Saw 2 foxes on the road up from Ely to E&H which was a first for both of us, and put us in high spirits.
Anyway, we had breakfast, eggs and bacon and hash browns, coffee and OJ. Got the tow by 8:30m but one of the staff members who loaded the boat with our gear forgot to grab paddles (and the Crazy Creek chairs, we later realized) so we had to head back about 10 minutes into the tow. Someone should have realized earlier, I should have, but it was kind of funny - tow driver shouts “HEY…… DID YOU GUYS GRAB PADDLES...????” And I look in the front of the boat, and I look in the back of the boat, and sure enough, no paddles. I just grinned at him and shouted “NOPE!”. We turned around and grabbed paddles, not a big deal really.
We hit the Sucker portage and were on Birch paddling at 9:33am, literally the same spot and same minute I checked when we started on my June trip. Saw a few people at the portage waiting for their tow. We did various lakes and portages and considered stopping early on Knife like in June. The travel down Birch, Carp, Melon, Seed was pretty easy just like in June as well.
Every site we saw was taken or crappy (not using the term lightly). We pushed to SAK and got a spot on the southern tip of the big island with multiple sites around 5:15pm. We were tired and desperate but it was a decent site for sure. We immediately began setting up camp with a sense of urgency, since we were also hungry and wanted to get our steaks going before dark. We both got our hammocks up in about 15 minutes and I got to the steaks, onion, and hash browns. Not having time to get firewood, we did the steaks on my MSR stove in a frying pan with vegetable oil. I would not do it this way again due to how much the oil sputtered. It completely covered my windscreen and was a pain to clean off of everything (including our dish rag). I was worried about everything, like my shoes, my wristwatch, my pants smelling like oil and steak. We tried to wash things the best we could using Camp Suds, but it’s hard to get oil off everything. We ended up being able to fit all of our dishes and the smelly stuff in a thick dry bag that F brought, which we were both very happy he did.
Much to my relief, we had no problems with wildlife through the night. I have read about bears in the SAK so yeah, I was glad we didn’t have to deal with a bear. Slept decently for my first night ever in my hammock, despite waking up almost a dozen times. Forgot to mention, but the weather was excellent all day. Clear blue skies with a nice cool breeze.
Takedown was slow due to F taking an hour to take down his Draumr hammock. I was less than thrilled (having taken about 15 minutes to break down my hammock setup) but let it slide. I made us some instant oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, with 2 granola bars each in our pockets. The coffee was a Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged El Salvador that I had ordered online and ground the day we drove up. It is decadent at home, but out in the wilderness it’s even better.
Before we left, we headed up the hill at our campsite to get a view of the SAK. The photos aren't great unfortunately, but it was a cool view.
We pushed off at 10:30am, an hour later than I was hoping to leave. Truth be told, I was a little annoyed by how long it took us to get out of there, but was trying not to let it bother me, and once we got on the water I was fine. Whatever happens, happens. You gotta just go with it.
Weather was great all day again, sunny with light breeze. We pushed to Cherry by 3:15pm, after wasting an hour looking for the Knife-Amoeber portage (mismarked on the Fisher map at the southeast bay, multiple false portages around there - it’s at the northwest bay, basically straight ahead as you come into the main bay back there). It’s actually marked properly on my Garmin map, and I should have checked it sooner, but forgot that the map had the portages marked! Oh well. That portage was taxing, and we had to take a good 10 minute break after double carrying up and down.
At the end of the Topaz-Cherry portage, the end was in sight. We pushed all day and didn’t have much to eat, honestly, and it finally caught up with me. After I set the canoe down a little too hard on rocks that I thought I had cleared, I got winded and had to sit down for a good 10 minutes while F and I ate some GORP. I drank the last of my water and took it slow and we found the first campsite on Cherry open. We decided to check the narrows site, which was taken, so we turned around into the breeze and pushed back to the other site, which was thankfully still open. I took it easy unloading gear and decided to set up the tent we brought with us just in case we couldn’t make 2 hammocks work at a site. I could have found a spot for the hammock, but I wanted a good night’s sleep that night, so I took the tent that night which worked out nicely.
The site turned out to be absolutely awesome and had an amazing view of the islands on the lake. Weather reports before we left said it would be cloudy most nights during our trip, but almost every night was clear. The view on Cherry under the early dark skies (mid-Sept) was fantastic. The Milky Way reflected off the calm lake in a way that you have to see with your own eyes to appreciate. I highly recommend a pair of binoculars for wildlife spotting and stargazing for this site. The tall cedars of this site really give it a cool feel; combined with the view of the sunset and sunrise, it’s an experience I won’t forget.
First base camp day!! No takedown, woot woot! It rained from about 5am to 9am, but we didn’t care. We set up my hammock tarp to sit under, in a lower area, about 100ft from at the fire grate. Of course, the rain stopped right after we did. The sun came out and stayed! It actually got kinda hot and we hung out hiding from the sun under the tarp after breakfast (different kind of oatmeal).
We fished off the shore and got nothing from about 11am to noon. Then we heard a float plane, and it ended up flying right over Cherry, did some loops around where we couldn’t see, and then we couldn’t hear it. Then we heard the engines fire up again, and the plane took off and flew right over the cliffs on Cherry, right by our site, in an amazing low pass. The loud roar of the engines echoed deeply throughout the lake. It was an epic sight! We managed to get it on our GoPros. I will see if I can get a clip of it up on YouTube.
About 45 minutes later, a canoe of 2 guys came by and told us they were with the DNR, got dropped off by the float plane, and were doing a gill net fishing survey of Cherry, Topaz, and Amoeber! They were the first people we had seen since we got out of the SAK. They got the narrows site, so the previous occupants must have left earlier that morning. We chatted with the DNR dudes for a bit and then they left. We ended up seeing them a few times, including our day out of Cherry - they are fast paddlers!
I went looking for firewood sometime after lunch while F hung out in his hammock. I managed to find a nice downed cedar off the ground that gave us enough firewood for almost 2 nights. It was surprisingly dry! Always a nice feeling. I bucked it up with my Silky Gomboy into manageable lengths, quickly limbed each segment with my hatchet, and carried the 3 or 4 long segments back to camp. We sawed and split everything in not too much time! I love me some good firewood processing.
Later that day, I put up my hammock and enjoyed a little shade. I tried to take a nap but there was a fly outside my hammock that really wanted to be my friend and kept flying all around my hammock. Oh well, it was a nice hang regardless.
We did dinner kinda early and got everything cleaned up before it was dark. With little fuss, we got a fire going with the fruits of our labor earlier in the day. We got my 10x50 binoculars mounted on a monopod and watched the water striders on the calm lake. There must have been hundreds all moving in concert. Some danced left, some danced right. We watched in awe at the pink and purple sunset on the reflection of the lake for what felt like 20 or 30 minutes. Even when it seemed too dark to see them on the lake with just your eyes, the binoculars seemed to amplify available light. It was an incredible experience.
Not long after, it was truly dark. I think these might be the darkest skies I’ve ever seen. Many nebulae, star clusters, and large galaxies were easily visible to the naked eye. It was a new moon so there was no wash out from moonlight either. Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter all reflected off the lake, as did the thousands of stars in the Milky Way. It was a humbling view. My mounted binoculars were an excellent addition to this, showing thousands of stars no matter where you pointed them. I am grateful to have experienced these skies in such preferable conditions.
We poured some whiskey and decided to make s’mores. Somehow, some graham crackers had survived in the barrel, as I had hoped. We had enough for 2 s’mores each! They were amazing, with perfectly cooked marshmallows, and they weren’t even messy either! All in all it was a great day on a beautiful lake. Weather was great with very calm winds, food was great, and the night was great, with bone dry wood for a perfect crackling fire. This was an ideal day in the Boundary Waters, I think.
Another base camp day! Calm as can be at 8am. Dew on everything. Sun was bright and hot right away. We had the apples & cinnamon flaxseed oatmeal and it was awesome. We realized we had a ton of food left, so we decided to eat some pop tarts and GORP as well. It turns out I forgot the Babybel cheese and salami slices at home, so we couldn’t do our meat and cheese wraps. Both of us were pretty bummed about that, but we managed to survive.
We went fishing after breakfast and coffee and got completely skunked once again, after trolling crankbaits to the narrows, drifting the narrows 3 times with rattle raps, and casting rattle raps near the northwestern cliffs, and then trolling crankbaits all the way back to camp. It was unfortunately pretty windy unlike the previous days, which limited our coverage of the narrows which we wanted to hit harder than we did. The bright sun didn’t help either.
Back at camp, hanging out near the fire area, we saw 2 groups of people, one coming from the narrows (2 canoes, likely from Hanson) and one from Topaz (4 canoes). They were the first people we had seen besides the DNR guys. Figured they had to be pretty bummed about both sites on the lake being taken. I wondered about the timing; it was a Tuesday, which means they put in probably on Monday regardless of a west side or east side entry. I wondered who puts in on a Monday, but maybe people who travel from out of state do.
I decide to try for a nap, or at least just lie down, at about 4pm. Starting to get a little impatient with F who hasn’t been helping with many camp chores, often messing with electronics. He and I are good friends so I’m doing my best to coach him along (he who has been on 2 trips without me before). I still kinda feel like I’m carrying the trip. But, I’m enjoying my time on Cherry, so I try not to let it bother me.
We ended up having dinner early again, Mountain House beef stroganoff, which we thought was quite good. The wind mostly died down after 7, and we thought about going out to fish, but decided against it since the landing wasn’t the greatest (rocky and slippery) even with good lighting. We had heard that there may be some thunderstorms overnight and the next few nights for the area, so we decided to leave Cherry the next day, one day early. We ended up going to bed at 8:20pm after a little whiskey. We planned to be up at 5:45am.
We got up early and made sure to have a substantial breakfast of flaxseed oatmeal and GORP and coffee, which I had time to make while F was still in the final phases of taking down and packing up all of his stuff, which I had come to accept. I took some time to take some photos of the gorgeous sunrise - you can't not, when it's this good. It was hard to leave this place.
We headed out of Amoeber into Little Knife and paddled all the way down Knife and get a spot on the west end of Knife for our last site. We trolled the whole way and I hooked into a nice ~18” smallmouth that put up a really nice fight. It ended up being the only fish of the trip, which was kind of a bummer, but we didn’t get completely skunked so it was more OK. It was cloudy all day, with different layers of thick clouds, with no wind whatsoever. It was in the high 60s, maybe it topped out at 70 that day. Paddling in a t-shirt, with no wind, I was sweating a bit. A light breeze would have been nice, but it was still awesome.
We saw a lot of loons on our paddle down, calling to each other, diving and surfacing. Some of them let us get really close. It was a really, really nice paddle. Something about it was special to me. The Canadian side was burned for a lot of it. There’s a nice narrow spot between Little Knife and Knife that is very picturesque.
One thing I haven’t mentioned at all yet for this trip? Bugs! You know why? It’s NOT because they don’t bother me! They love me! But they’re basically nonexistent! I was able to wear a t-shirt like 75% of the trip! The weather was perfect.
We got to our site at the bend of a cliffside on west Knife around 1:30 or 2pm and found it quite decent. It would be great for large groups, with a huge mostly flat area that also accumulated water quickly during rain (as we found out). The site had unfortunately been abused, with many places where limbs of live trees had been cut off, and bushes removed. I felt bad thinking one spot would make a good place to hang my hammock, once I noticed the damage to the trees. I ended up hanging it anyway since it was one of the only places, and I wanted to use it again before the end of the trip.
It turned out that you can hike up the cliffside by our site (that's where the latrine is - up!). We hiked up a bit and didn't find some epic lookout point, but we did get some nice views regardless. We commented how you could almost hang a hammock between some of the trees up there and get a nice view out at the lake.
We decided to try fishing that evening with some dark clouds far away, knowing we might only have 15-20 minutes. We went out and trolled east and back, for literally about 20 minutes, before we heard thunder and booked it back to the site. I noticed there were no more canoes on the lake like we had seen earlier in the day!
What followed was a crazy thunderstorm, with 40-50mph gusts and huge pelting raindrops, that lasted for about 20 minutes as it blew through the lake. My friend and I had our raingear on and just stood out in camp enjoying the craziness, hooting and hollering with nature. Whiskey may or may not have been involved!
After the storm passed, a lot of the puddles it formed soaked right into the ground over 10-15 minutes. We made dinner on the stove and got it cleaned up before dark. We sipped some whiskey and hung out for a bit, then listened to the weather radio to see what the following days may hold. There was something like a 60% chance of thunderstorms both the next day and the day after that. We decided that leaving early was better than getting “stormbound”, and chose to leave the next day. We headed to bed around 8:30pm or so.
We got up around 7am even though exit would only take us roughly 4 hours, knowing we had a tow at 3pm that could probably come get us sooner if we can call them. We were surprisingly quick and were on the water at about 8:40am. It was sunny again, but a little windy.
We got to the Sucker Lake portage around 12:45pm, almost exactly 4 hours from Knife. Funny enough, we had a heck of a decent headwind on Birch and somehow still made it in 4 hours! We even took a wrong portage out of/into Seed (I think)! It was a nice day if not for the wind. We saw a few folks on their way in and chatted with them briefly.
At the Sucker landing, we hung out with two dudes waiting for their outfitter’s tow back, whom we chatted with for something like an hour. We were able to call W&H and get them to come get us, and ended up sharing a ride back with two lovely ladies just coming back from Prairie Portage. I mentioned that we had been up at Cherry, and the driver asked me if we got up to Lake of the Clouds. I wish I had been able to say yes, because we had the opportunity to go, and we didn’t. At least I have a reason to go back, as if I didn’t already - Cherry is beautiful.
We got back to the landing around 2:30pm, drank our cold beers, took our hot showers, and headed on our way back to Minneapolis. On our drive we noted sooo many more trees changing colors than we saw in the BWCA! We couldn't figure out why the colors were much stronger on the first hour of our drive than we saw in any lake we were in. We figured it has to do with the local climate, and maybe there is less stress on the trees in the BWCA so they change color slower.
We drove slowly, playing our favorite music, enjoying the beautiful weather for the drive home, reflecting on a good trip. Stick around for the reflections in the next and final part of this trip report.
The trip had its ups and downs (literally and metaphorically), and was challenging at times, and but I am glad I experienced it. Cherry Lake is as beautiful as they say, and we got great weather during our stay that really completed the experience. Even though we only caught a single fish the whole trip, that one fish was pretty nice!
F and I talked about what went well and what didn’t, and he fully agreed that he had too much going on with multiple GoPros and cameras and other various electronics, and didn’t help as much on portages and with camp chores as maybe he should have. I got over it though and he knows to improve on it in the future. We are still friends after this trip, so there is that.
Still, for all future trips, I will make sure the people I’m going with understand priorities for the group, and are willing to help and do things without being asked. It did bother me a bit but I did my best not to think about it and just look around me and enjoy it.
Besides the mentioned faults of this trip, we did most things really well. None of our setbacks truly impacted our safety or sanity (for the most part anyway!). We were responsible when using sharp things, when using the stove and making fires, and in leaving no trace. Most things went well on this trip and we were both happy for that.
This route was pretty awesome, all things considered. I really like Cherry and the NAK area. The push to SAK on the first day was taxing, but everything else about the trip was pretty great! I would like to see NAK again, Ottertrack would be great. I gotta get to Lake of the Clouds somehow! So of course, I’ve already got a route to check it out, along with a bunch of other new stuff further southeast as well. All I know is, I love this area, and I’m really glad I got the chance to see it.