BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
October 28 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 27
Elevation: 1356 feet
Moose Lake - 25
Trout in the Time of Covid
July 07, 2020
Number of Days:
Departure day. I envy paddlers who start their story with “I made the two to three hour drive up to Ely”. Orlando, FL would make for quite the drive (approximately 26 hours straight). We each decided to fly into Duluth this year to shorten the post flight car ride. A two hour car ride from Duluth didn’t sound too bad. I woke up at 4 am with the typical pretrip jitters. What could I forget? It’s always the simple stuff you assumed you couldn’t possibly forget. I stared at my bags and went through the Excel pack list again and again. I was as ready as I could be. At fifty pounds apiece, the two checked bags were at their limit (for the airline anyway).
It was tough making some final cuts, but with a fire ban in place and record heat wave, I decided the axe and saw weren’t going to see a lot of use. A heavy fleece went back into the closet. Many of the food items got pushed aside with the plan to purchase them again once we landed in Duluth.
Grant, Davis, and I were converging from Austin, Atlanta, and Orlando respectively. The Orlando airport was an eerie sight. There were virtually no security lines and absolutely no wait anywhere I went. Gate after gate sat empty. What few people I did see all had masks on. It did make me feel better about flying.
After meeting up with the rest of the crew in Chicago, we pulled up a map over beers and debated certain routes and tried to get a feel for what type of trip we wanted. After a few beers and a quick burger, we masked up and boarded a small regional jet bound for the 90-minute flight to Duluth.
A quick stop at the rental car counter and we were on our way. I may have overdone it with the Yukon XL car rental. The thing looked like a tank and had more than enough room for all of the bags and then some. The Duluth Walmart provided the necessary last-minute additions like summer sausage, Wesson oil, and what we thought would be enough peanut butter and jelly to feed us for the week.
The short drive up the Ely flew by and we soon found ourselves at the Boathouse sipping on IPAs and downing gunboats (cream cheese stuffed jalapenos topped with sausage). It would’ve been their blueberry beer but the waitress had a wicked Minnasota accent and we couldn’t understand most of her beer recommendations. At the end of the meal, she told us it was the blueberries that weren't in season, but they had more than enough beer in stock. I couldn’t resist a walleye sandwich for dinner with the ever-present possibility of getting skunked if we didn’t catch any fish. A quick stop by Piragis to pick up a Garmin InReach rental and we headed towards the Williams and Hall lodge on Moose Lake.
We reached the lodge about sunset. Everyone had already left for the night and we had called ahead to get instructions on finding the room. We couldn’t resist heading straight down to the docks and taking a look around. We quietly eyed the canoes wondering which ones were destined to be our trip partners for the week. I don't know if I'm the only one that does this, but I eyed each solo wondering which would take me on my way. I had read multiple forums on whether three travelers were better in one canoe or a tandem with a solo. I had never paddled a solo before but had the itch to try it. There was no way in my mind the three of us were going to all try to fish out of one canoe.
Each of us made those last-minute phone calls to the wives knowing cell service would be nonexistent the following day. I vaguely remember these same docks more than twenty years prior with the Boy Scouts. Standing on the docks made me confident this was the same place. It made me want to jump in the water and relive that childhood memory.
We found our way up to the room and spent the next hour unpacking and repacking, eliminating redundant items, and trying to minimize the painful portage weight we knew was to come. Sleep did not come easy as the nervous anticipation of another year’s trip on the horizon. The heat wave Ely was facing didn’t help sleep either.
We agreed to set an alarm for 6 am and do our last-minute packing before heading to the dining room for a pancake breakfast. I almost made it to 5 am before I couldn’t stay in bed any longer. I made my way back down to the docks and meandered around taking in the sunrise and fresh air.
Davis and Grant started to mobilize around 6 am and we found our way down to the shop greeted by the one and only Dave. This guy is the epitome of knowledge and hospitality and once we finalized the details, we soon found ourselves alone in the dining room as Amanda served us up some delicious bacon and pancake breakfast. There’s an intriguing split feeling between sitting comfortably and having a great meal versus the itch to get on the water and leave civilization behind.
After we got some route recommendations, a weather report, and finalized a pickup time (3 pm Tuesday afternoon), we hopped aboard the tow and made our way to the drop-off, a 40-rod portage into Splash lake. We knew there was a sizable storm heading in, and the forecast had it reaching us around 1 pm. I eyed the Minnesota II and Encounter strapped to the tow boat wondering how hard it would be to adapt to the solo. There were a few canoes out, but Moose Lake was mostly empty at this hour. There was a slight chill in the air, and I wished I had made a long sleeve shirt more accessible. I reminded myself that the portage to come would likely get us warmed up fairly quickly. It did not disappoint.
We were dropped off at the shallow mouth of a stream and quickly found the heavily worn portage on the left side. The portage went quickly no doubt fueled by the adrenaline of starting the trip. After getting everything situated on the far side, we all made that first push off from the shore and got a feel for the boats. Putting the paddle into the water on Splash was like a dream, a year in the making so to speak. Once I got used to the stability, I played with my stroke a bit and got into a rhythm. I had read different takes on whether a solo paddler would have trouble keeping pace with a tandem canoe. Apparently experience makes the biggest difference. The kayak paddle quickly put that question to rest and I found I could outpace the other canoe, but only if needed. A steady medium effort stroke with the double blade kept us about the same pace. The 30-degree bent shaft was there as a backup and discovered it didn’t carry near the efficiency and speed as the kayak paddle. It was a bit overcast but the lack of wind made it a leisurely paddle into and across Ensign Lake.
We didn’t have a definitive destination and found Ensign had about every third site occupied from what we could see. No one was up yet and we had the lake to ourselves otherwise. Our main goal this year was to find some solitude. Last year with the trip into Quetico, that was easily accomplished. With many of the permits sold out and the border to the north closed due to the virus, we didn’t know where or even if we were going to find the crowds. After a steady paddle across Ensign, I found myself about a hundred yards ahead and waited for the Minnesota II to catch up. I quickly rigged up a blue and silver rattler and after a few casts, I felt that familiar tug on the line. I reeled in the catch to find a tiny bronzeback. The smallmouth was hardly the monster I envisioned, but it felt good to start the trip off with a catch. Grant and Davis glided to the portage entrance with a crankbait trolling behind as well.
I tossed him back into the water and we made our way over to the 54-rod portage into Ashigan Lake. The rocky beach made for an easy unload and we made great time with the crossing. The blue barrel however was quickly becoming our Achilles heel. It was loaded to the brim and had the weight to match. Davis inevitably took the load more often than not. We eyed one of three available sites on Ashigan and surveyed the impending storm. A light rain had begun to fall but we couldn’t appreciate any lightning/thunder so we decided to push on and see if we could make it into Ima.
Every trip, I try to envision whether single portaging would even be possible. We clearly weren’t packed for that with numerous rod holders, camp chairs, three or four large flasks of whiskey, and a myriad of other luxuries. For several portages, I was able to get my CCS Pioneer pack and the Encounter canoe on one pass, but even with three of us, double portaging was the only possibility.
At the end of Ashigan, we finally began to slow down our pace as we encountered to 100+ rod portage into Gibson Lake. It was a bit buggy with some subtle elevation changes. You’re met with gentle hills on the beginning and end of the portage. One interesting feature is three wide wooden planks in the middle of the portage. It makes for a pretty cool site as the three wide wooden planks stretch straightly into the woods. A quick stop for a picture was quickly met with the resident mosquitoes reminding us this was not a good place to rest.
We took a quick breather looking out into Gibson Lake, but didn’t take too long of a break given the storm we knew to be approaching. A quick bite of lunch consisted of Ritz crackers, summer sausage, and some Wisconsin chipotle cheese. PackItGourmet began by getting some pretty rave reviews from us.
The 27-rod portage into Cattyman Lake is another fun one. Approaching, you can hear running water to your right as you start heading uphill almost immediately. About halfway up the portage, there is a side trail that leads down to a beautiful waterfall. A garter snake didn’t seem bothered by our presence as we watched him slither up and down the adjacent rocks. Without the storm pressing our timeline, it would have been nice to take a dip in the pools below.
The short trip across Cattyman brought us to a 44-rod portage into Jordan Lake. We were starting to get into a rhythm of loading and unloading. We also found only 2 of the 3 of us would have to go back for a second load and third walk across the portage. The reward of rest was usually afforded to whoever manned the blue barrel pack, which was likely pushing 70-80 lbs with the added Duluth Walmart additions. This ended up being Davis most of the time. At 6’7, he’s a giant among ants.
The clouds had started to thin somewhat, and we glanced around somewhat surprised we hadn't encountered rougher weather. “What storm?” we told ourselves. Our hubris forecasted the tumultuous night to come. We also started to see what we feared more than the storm…an absence of campsites. All three sites on Jordan were taken. With an abundance of sites on Ima, we figured something had to be available. A meandering path through the cliffs than connect to Jordan brought us to the last portage of the day, a quick 13 rod into Ima Lake. The path is a pretty one, lined by rocky shores with the occasional rock face and high trees on either side.
With small wind gusts, we arrived on Ima and discovered we weren’t the only ones who had made this lake an overnight destination. A quick survey of the initial three sites closest to the portage showed them to be occupied. We additionally saw traces bright red and blue on the two northern sites, a surefire sign of a tarp or tent. Dave at Williams and Hall had circled the southern island as having a premiere site and we wondered if it was too much to ask that it be open. My hopes were not high. As we pulled within a hundred yards or so, we saw we would have no such luck. With a great landing, rocky outcropping, and great views, I’m sure we weren’t the only ones who had checked its availability. Given that it was taken, we had planned on checking the southern end of the same island and then across to the southern shore of Ima where two additional sites were. Davis and Grant were a good thirty to forty yards behind me when I heard a distant shout. We could all see the northern island site was occupied. I turned back and gazed at the other canoe before distinctly hearing Grant shout “RACE” as the wind tried to drown him out. I quickly scanned the shoreline and saw it. A group of two canoes had just rounded the island from the northeast side, no doubt checking also to see if this island site was free. This was bad for several reasons. One, we were now headed in the same direction both clearly looking for lodging for the night. The other thing that worried me is that they were coming from the opposite side of the lake. If they’d come this far, chances are there wasn’t anything available on the east side either.
Grant and I had encountered this once on the 2019 Quetico trip, and it is one of my least favorite parts of the Boundary Waters. A race to find a campsite isn’t exactly the most relaxing way to start a vacation. The lead canoe was heavily loaded with three grown males. I saw the lead canoe look my way and without missing a beat, their paddle cadence quickly doubled as they tried to loop around west side of the island heading south. Knowing if a site was available and we missed it, it could mean several more hours in the boat and potentially finding a new lake to call home for the night. I hunched forward and put the double-bladed paddle to the task. All three in the lead canoes had their heads down with their paddles in the water in unison. The unspoken communication was clear…they were not going to give up their shot at a site either. After an initial flourish of activity, I steadied my strokes and steadily pulled ahead. My head on a swivel, I scanned the shoreline for what would hopefully be an unoccupied site. The smaller canoe cut through the water with an efficiency the tandem couldn’t match. It became clear after several minutes that the trio could not keep pace with the lighter and more nimble solo.
As I rounded the island, the elated feeling of victory was quickly shattered as a beached canoe on one of the southern sites came into view. “F*****K” I muttered to myself, trying to catch my breath between paddles. Another occupied site. One last chance. Site 2313 was our last hope on Ima. Sitting south and east of the island, I had figured there was no way it was available. It would have been visible to the other group as they approached the island site from the east. Nonetheless, as I rounded a small peninsula south of the island, a feeling of elation began to build as I scanned the shoreline for tarps, tents, or any other signs of human activity. I spotted the site almost instantly with no one in sight and glided to the landing, climbing out and doing a quick survey to make sure it would suit our needs. There's always that initial fear that it in fact was not a desigated site, but the firepit quickly allayed those fears. The other group slowed their pace rounding the peninsula as they saw me climb to the rocky point at the edge of site. I promptly sat down on the rocky outcropping still trying to catch my breath and solidifying my intention to stay put. They immediately slowed their paddle and slowly pointed their canoe back toward the east, most likely to the next portage to Hatchet Lake. From my vantage point, I eyed the three sites on the eastern shore which confirmed my suspicion…they all looked occupied as well. Grant and Davis eventually rounded the point and I signaled with a big smile and thumbs up that we were good for the time being. They quickly beached the canoe and surveyed the great view we had for the next several days. Davis promptly sat himself on the water’s edge with no intention of moving for the time being. It felt well deserved for a first day of travel.
There are those times when you take a site because there is really no other option. What was great about this campsite is that I would have picked this site amongst many of the occupied sites that we had already passed. Grant and I were hammock camping, so all we needed were some well-spaced trees and one decent tent pad for Davis’s solo tent. The views were incredible with enough well-spaced trees for both of the hammocks and tarp. Around 2 pm, sunshine started to peak through the scattered clouds and confidence began to build that the storm had missed us. We scouted our respective sleeping spots and got to the task of setting up camp. With a fire ban still in effect, collecting firewood was a moot point. I always appreciated gear reviews in trip reports, and not enough can be said about the CCS tarp. It is one of my favorite pieces of equipment. The Platypus gravity filter is another great addition on its third trip, making water filtration a much more manageable. I can’t imagine anyone still pumps their water or would still want to with the gravity filters.
After getting settled, I headed back to the boat to get back on the water with a line in tow. I was already pretty exhausted from the early morning and day’s travel but had been dreaming of fishing these waters for months. The enthusiasm slowly faded after almost three hours of jigging, trolling, and casting without a single bite. It was very hot, probably pushing 90 degrees, and I assumed the heat and time of day had something to do with my lack of success. As I slowly trolled back toward camp, I watched the familiar twitching of the tip of the rod as the crankbait quivered forty yards or so behind me. The Garmin Stryker 4 fish finder you think would have helped. I could see the fish very clearly with the help of the sonar, I just couldn’t get them to show any interest. Halfway through the outing, the screen shut off and faded to black. I must have forgotten to replace the batteries prior to leaving home. Rookie mistake. I had backup batteries back at camp, but the idea of the unnecessary weight certainly bothered me, and on day 1 of the trip!
The sudden bend in the tip of the rod and familiar whirl of line running out was all I needed to hear to brighten my mood. I grabbed the rod and slowly cranked up the drag and began to work the catch to the surface. After several runs back down to the bottom, I was able to work it several feet below the surface and spotted the speckled silver side of the only species I had yet to catch after four BWCA trips, a lake trout. He took several more dives until he tired out and I slipped the net beneath him and hoisted the beast out of the water. He was a monster in my eyes. I don’t catch a lot of lake trout (it was my first after all), but I was quickly confident the three of us could have a fish dinner with no one going hungry. I threw him on the stringer and began the slow troll back to basecamp. What a strange outing. The only bite I had would feed three grown men. I could see the curious glances from my trip partners as I approached the site. “Any luck?” they shouted across the water. I feigned disappointment…” almost three hours fishing and only one bite”, I replied as I pulled my trophy out of the water.
After quickly getting settled back in camp, I set to the task of cleaning the catch down on the water’s edge, hoping any smells the fish generated would be quickly washed away.
We surveyed the menu and unanimously decided lake trout mac and cheese with griddle cakes was what the evening called for. As we grilled up the trout, a light rain began to fall, and we watched as an amazing sunset dipped behind impending storm clouds.
We were thrilled the weather didn’t ruin the day but the night would be a different story. The storm was not absent…just running a little behind schedule. We spent the hour after sunset watching an incredible lightning show not so way off in the distance, only made that much better by a glass of Bulleit Bourbon and a cigar. I’ll admit a campfire would have rounded out the night, but with a fire ban in place, it would have to wait.
Exhausted from the day, we all retired to our respective sleeping quarters, two of us in hammocks and Davis opting for the 1 man tent.
My eyes were closed soon after my head hit the pillow, but unfortunately the feeling did not last long. I awoke maybe an hour later to my hammock bouncing in the wind and the sound of heavy rain coming down. The sound progressively became louder until I knew there was no way any of us would be able to sleep through this. The wind gusts were fiercely impressive, and I found my whole body clenching in fear that my tarp stakes were going to give up at any moment and subject me to the immediate wrath of the storm that surrounded us. I tried to remember if I had seen any widow makers around camp as we set up. I made a mental note to try to be more diligent about spotting the dead trees that were still standing. The worst-case scenario was that the wind would fell a large tree and land on one of us. The next five to six hours or so were more of less the same intense barrage as the storm showed no signs of letting up. I’d nod off from exhaustion only to awaken with my heart racing as more wind gusts battered the tarps over and over again. It was something I had never experienced before and will hopefully never again.
~Moose Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake~Moose Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake, Ashigan Lake
When morning finally came around, there was heavy steady rain but thankfully the worst of it seemed to be over. Small gusts persisted but after that night, it seemed minor in comparison. Once the wind had calmed somewhat, I made the climb from the hammock and found everyone still sleeping. I surveyed the damage and thankfully we looked to have made out fairly well. Dan Cooke’s tarp still hung as intended, although drooping heavy to the ground with collected rainwater as we had removed the center pole support prior to turning in the night before. I quickly found our Helinox and REI chairs scattered in some heavy brush on the edge of camp. I was honestly impressed that they managed to stay in the general vicinity of camp. With their little weight, I figured they would have made the perfect sail all the way across the lake. We should have been a little more diligent about buttoning up camp at bedtime. I picked up my life jacket and found a sizable spider had taken refuge beneath it.
A pot of coffee from the French press got the morning started off right as Grant and Davis began to emerge. We traded stories of each our struggles to sleep through the night. Davis unfortunately had a somewhat older tent, and he discovered in the downpour some rainwater had made it into his sleeping quarters. I can't imagine being wet through the barrage of the night before. Breakfast burritos were on the menu for the morning. After some fresh scrambled eggs, cheese, precooked bacon, and just add water salsa, I would say that the result was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Mid-morning as the rain and clouds began to thin, Grant took a canoe out for some fishing. Davis grabbed a rod and decided to try his luck from shore. I decided to catch up on some reading and lounge around camp. I was surprised everyone wasn't more exhausted given the previous night. Around lunchtime, we were surprised that Grant still had yet to return. Several hours later, we saw his boat slowly making his way down the shoreline. Davis and I hoped to hear about a productive day of fishing. Instead, we learned the wind had picked up and marooned Grant to a cove on the Far East side of the lake, apparently one with a complete absence of hungry fish. The wind had become too much to handle and Grant had stayed put for hours looking for a window to exit.
After we hung out in camp a bit, I decided to try my luck with the rod and reel. We decided to go fish as a group and Davis and Grant hopped in the Minnesota II hoping to make another fish dinner happen. Unfortunately, we had a repeat performance of Grant’s morning excursion. The winds picked up once again and the off and on white caps quickly made fishing a difficult task. As we had suspected the prior day, any site we came across on Ima was occupied. Most campers seemed content to stay put for the day and see if the weather would calm. No one else seemed to be out on the lake instead choosing to weather the winds in camp.
We found ourselves pushed into a cove on the eastern side of Ima where the waves were calmer (for Grant’s sake, thankfully not the cove he found himself trapped prior). We tied the canoes to one of the shorelines and climbed a steep embankment, intent on shore fishing given the winds which seemed to be picking up.
Despite several hours of jigging from the cliffs and simple cast and retrieve, none of us had much luck. Grant managed to snag his line on some rocks about fifteen to twenty yards from the shore. He shed his life jacket and waded out to the offending rock and took a quick dive under to save the lure. Success! That however was about all we caught.
The winds still hadn’t subsided, and we reluctantly decided it was getting too late to wait things out. It took a few attempts just to get the canoe pointed in the right direction. Just when you thought you had a good heading, a gust would catch the side of the boat like a sail and you’d give up significant progress. We tried to stay close to shore until there was a small break in the gusts, allowing us to straight line it across the large lake. Once back, we all spread out around the fire pit and caught our breath. Ironically it seemed the wind seemed to calm somewhat once we got settled.
Dinner consisted of shrimp fried rice. One question going into the trip was how accurate serving sizes would be from Campchow and Packitgourmet. I figured three large guys could do a few servings apiece. I was way off. One serving was more than enough food and at the end of the night, we found ourselves digging holes away from camp to bury the extra food. Not ideal. I had also ordered multiple small packets of Texas Pete’s hot sauce. I know I packed it and spent entirely too long going through the entire blue barrel several times with no luck. I’m convinced the TSA took it for their own lunches. At publication time for this report, the hot sauce is still MIA. We capped off the evening with another nightcap of bourbon which was quickly becoming one of our favorite daily rituals. The weather remained slightly overcast but it made for a beautiful sunset. Everyone was in bed before 9:00 pm, absolutely exhausted. I pulled up a book on the Kindle, Ready Player One by Earnst Cline. Growing up in the ‘80s, it’s a personal favorite, although the movie did not do it justice in my opinion. The mosquito swarm hit about 9:30, but it didn’t keep us up for long.
The early bedtime and the time change from Orlando made for an early morning. I figured it was past 7:00 am when I awoke, only to find my watch informing me it was 5 am. This is always one of my favorite times of solitude on these trips. I quietly slipped out of the hammock, changed clothes, and made my way to the center of camp for a much-needed cup of coffee. Thirty minutes later I was trolling across the lake in search of the next trophy fish. The water was calm, but some of the wind remained producing a very mild chop on the water. Several hours of fishing didn’t produce a single bite but it was one of those mornings that the lack of fish didn’t bother me. The peace and solitude were more than rewarding enough. I had my phone for photos and decided to put on some quiet music on at a very low volume. It was so foreign sounding in the wilderness that I quickly turned it off. The silence was much more relaxing.
A reoccurring topic of discussion amongst the three of us was whether each of us would enjoy a purely solo trip to the Boundary Waters. Mornings like this, there is no questions I would revel in a solo adventure. However, the group dynamic is not easily replaced, and certain aspects of the experience would not be as enjoyable without someone to share it with. Grant decided a dog companion would definitely count as a sufficient tripping partner. I would mostly agrees, but Cooper, my 6 year-old golden retriever, is not well behaved enough to my mind at ease on a trip like this. My goal for retirement is to take multiple solos annually.
I coasted back into camp mid-morning for another cup of coffee as Grant and Davis slowly emerged from their hammock and tent respectively and joined me. Before long, bacon and eggs were frying over the stoves as we discussed the day's plan. I must say, the precooked bacon over the frying pan tastes pretty close to the real thing at home.
The lack of fishing success certainly was weighing on the group and a change of venue was suggested for the day. After carefully studying the map, we elected to head for either Thomas or Fraser Lakes, depending on the weather and the exhaustion factor. It was slightly unnerving to leave the site especially given the lack of campsite availability we had seen several days prior. After the one to two hours of packing up camp, we said goodbye to Ima and headed along the southern shore in a steady wind and medium chop in search of the 28-rod portage into Hatchett Lake.
The portage entrance to Hatchett is between two high cliff faces and makes for a doable yet steep initial rocky climb. The takeout is a nice setup although tough if you're one of those dry footers.
The far end of the portage opens into a narrow channel filled with lily pads and thankfully protected from the wind. We passed several canoes headed the opposite way and quickly traded hellos before pushing on.
There was one small portage that I felt brave enough to bypass, trying my luck on two or three pullovers. My back appreciated the break from the heavy packs, but I found there was no significant time saved as I met Davis and Grant exiting the portage on the other side.
A short ten rod portage later around mid-day, we found ourselves staring out into Thomas Lake. We met a nice young couple from New York on the portage and traded stories of the storm several nights prior. They also gave us a scouting report of the sites available on Thomas. Much to our disappointment, they informed us the majority of sites on the southwestern end of the lakes were occupied, some by larger boy scout groups. We gave them our take on Ima Lake and learned they were going to try to make it into Ensign by the end of the day. With the wind blowing heavily from northwest to southeast, I assumed that was going to be a long day of travel for them. We carefully studied the map and decided to avoid the crowds on the southwest side. Dave at Williams and Hall had marked site 1186 on the southeastern side as a preferred site so we charted a course and crossed our fingers. The moderate wind pushed us south, and we learned the solo canoe could make the trek much faster than the more heavily loaded tandem. As I rounded an island in the middle of the lake, I saw a lone figure sitting on a cliff edge in the vicinity of the site. The red shirt he or she was wearing looked like it could be visible from several miles away. I once again was overcome with this feeling that because we had planned, sweated, and worked hard, that somehow, we were entitled to the site we wanted. It’s certainly easy to understand the frustration some paddlers feel to travel all day only to find a lake with no available sites.
We pulled into the shore of the island, protected somewhat from the wind, and debated the next move. We could east to the only two remaining sites on the lake, or head west to the scout Gymboree with a dozen or so sites scattered on that side of the lake. Fraser Lake to the east was still an option if the two eastern sites were occupied. We turned back into the wind and made our way along the western shore of a large “L Shaped” island in the middle of Thomas. As we rounded the northern side of the island, we could see a group of eight campers or so loitering around a rocky point that could only be the more northern of the two sites. We scanned the shoreline about 150 yards to the east and pulled into a fairly poor takeout of campsite 1187. As we scouted the site, we found it tucked back into the woods with several decent tent pads, but it lacked the views we desired as well as the lack of wind to keep the bugs at bay. The blue barrel was opened, and we stared at the map as a lunch of PB and Js with summer sausage on Ritz was enjoyed. I could tell everyone was starting to feel a little drained, or maybe that was me just hoping my trip companions were starting to feel as tired as I was.
As we packed up lunch and started to load the canoes back up, we watched as a leader of the group to the north appeared to be doing a demonstration of sorts. An adult appeared to be teaching paddle strokes or technique to four or five junior campers. What was most intriguing was all the members of the group had their life jackets on and the canoes looked fully loaded with gear. This was definitely worth waiting out a few minutes. Much to our delight, they slowly loaded up the four boats and made their way west. A 2 pm departure was hardly ideal for them and we assumed the heavy winds had delayed their planned departure.
The timing however was advantageous and as another group of three boats headed up from the south, we didn’t waste any time jumping to the northern site. Site 1188 was much more to our liking. Another rocky elevated site made for great views and a grassy open area by the water was perfect for a hammock or two. Everyone split up as we picked our favorite spots and began the slow unpacking process.
After several hours, we were eager to dip our lines in the water and see if Thomas or Fraser would give us any better luck. The winds were still pretty brutal, and we found ourselves pushed south. We found the narrow passage into Fraser with high cliff walls on either side. The result was almost like a wind tunnel and despite being less than ten feet wide, the passage at times became hard to navigate with the wind pushing us back towards Thomas. Once through, we fished the western shores of Fraser without much success and worked our way up to a cove on the far northwestern corner of the lake. By this time, I was trying every technique I knew of (which isn’t very many given my relative lack of fishing knowledge). It didn’t matter how many YouTube videos I had watched; it wasn’t translating into results. That changed when I decided to try out a Lindy Rig with a “bullet sinker” next to a swivel, followed by a floating jig head with plastic 3 to 4 feet out. We worked the eastern side of the cove with a drop-off of 10-20 feet and managed to land a few walleyes. As I pulled the first walleye out of the water, a large bald eagle took interest and perched himself on the top of the nearest tree. He cocked his head back and forth as I placed the walleye on the stringer. His impressive curved beak looked imposing and I found myself slightly unnerved as I turned my back to the bird to tend to the fish. He stayed for the next fifteen minutes or so checking out our catch, no doubt waiting for his chance at an easy supper. We didn’t give him the chance and after a while, we heard the familiar sound of him taking flight. Grant managed to pull another keeper walleye right to the edge of the boat before he broke free and quickly swam out of reach. After procuring another walleye, we decided to make our way back to camp.
As we leisurely paddled back down to the southern passage, we saw something crossing the lake. We traded guesses…” probably a loon”. The interesting this was how high out of the water it was sitting. We were still pretty far away, and it didn’t seem the right size for a loon. “Maybe a beaver?”. We quickened our paddle slightly and soon the enormous antlers of the moose slowly came into view. Keeping our distance, we watched it approach the western shore and climb out of the water. It was quite an impressive site. I tried to get my best shot with the iPhone, but the distance made it difficult to make out. As it climbed out of the water, the moose turned his head and watched us curiously before losing interest and disappearing behind the tree line. I had joked with the group earlier than the only thing missing on this trip was a moose sighting. Box checked! We joked on whether or not a bear sighting needed to be on the list. Far away from camp was the agreed upon answer. Two years ago Davis and I had an overeager bear visit our camp on Knife several times one night which was less than relaxing.
Back at camp, I got to the task of cleaning the fish. We elected for a side of garlic mashed potatoes and griddle cakes, which had become a crowd favorite after the two previous nights. Our battle with the serving sizes continued and we had enough mashed potatoes for a group of 8. Bourbon once again followed dinner with another cigar and amazing sunset. This time it was Four Roses Reserve Bourbon, compliments of Davis.
We got to bed slightly later than usual and as each of us tidied up camp and brushed our teeth, our mistake became evident. The swarm of mosquitoes descended on camp with such vengeance I had never before seen. It was hard not to swallow or breath in the bugs as the swarms around our heads continued to grow. As I unzipped the bug net and rather emergently climbed in the hammock, I tried to close it up right behind me, flipping on my headlight to survey the damage. A sizable cloud of mosquitoes joined me beneath the bug net as I swatted and clapped, trying to thin the uninvited guests. I was able to get a few more chapters of the book in before my eyes gave in. The night of sleep was pretty miserable, mostly due to the mosquitoes somehow managing to bite me on my back repetitively through the hammock material.
The poor nights of sleep had begun to take its toll and I was easily able to sleep in past 7 am. Breakfast consisted of biscuits and gravy. I couldn’t decide between Mountain House or PackItGourmet so I had packed several servings of both on the trip. We were unanimous that while Mountain House was decent, PackItGourmet was much better and would have been a great breakfast in the comfort of our own kitchens.
We hung out around camp for a few hours debating what to do with the day. A day trip seemed like a good idea and we studied the map for a worthy destination for the day. Our eyes were drawn to Raven Lake which Dave had marked at a spot good for lake trout fishing. Grant had been talking about catching a trout since we landed in Minnesota. Davis was less convinced. Still weary from the prior day’s travel, he elected to stay at camp for the day and get some much-needed R&R. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, and you could tell he didn’t want to miss out on an adventure. We told Davis half-heartedly to send out a search party if we weren’t back by 7 pm.
Grant and I loaded up the tandem for the day trip and left camp around 10:45 am, making note of the time it took us to reach our destination. I was anticipating maybe two hours to get up there. Depending on the route, you can take the 9 rod Fraser to Shepo portage, followed by a 20 rod into Sagus Lake. One more 31 rod portage would bring us into Roe Lake. The winds were still pretty strong and we thought the smaller lakes may make the trip a little more manageable. The portages weren’t too bad and with nothing to carry but the canoe/paddles, fishing gear, and Grant’s camera case, we made it without too much trouble. We weren’t exactly setting record pace, but it was going on 2 and a half hours when we reached the mouth of the small stream heading from Roe to Raven. Roe lake seemed very shallow and littered with lily pads.
The far eastern side of the lake turns borderline marshy with several mud mounds rising above the water by an inch or two. We reached the mouth of a very small stream that based on the map, weaved through a marshy wetland for about 2/3s of a mile before dumping you in Raven Lake. Grant and I were already starting to get tired when we reach the end of Roe. We talked it over briefly but given the time it had already taken us to get this far, by no means were we going to call it quits.
The stream was no more than four to five feet wide in most spots and some of the sharp turns made it difficult for the 18-foot boat to navigate. It was also well between 80 and 90 degrees out. We came upon a somewhat poorly maintained portage that couldn’t have been longer than 10-15 rods. As we went deeper, it was if the black flies emerged from a hibernation and began to swarm around our heads. Grant donned a mosquito head net while I cursed under my breath for the stupidity of leaving mine back at camp. The tougher it became, the more determined we were. The conditions had been so dry (hence the fire ban, the recent storm notwithstanding) that water levels were much lower than typical. We found we couldn’t paddle effectively and used the narrow shorelines to push ourselves further. Sometimes you’d hit solid ground with the blade of the paddle, but more often than not, the blade would sink into heavy mud and emit a smell of putrid foulness. Grant mentioned that had a dog pooped, eaten it, and regurgitated it back up, it would have smelled mild by comparison. We nicknamed the day’s adventure “Deathmarch to Poopland” and joked that if the Boundary Waters had an anus, this was most certainly it. The deeper we went, the smell also grew worse. Given the narrow channel, we joked we couldn't turn back now even if we wanted to.
With every turn we told ourselves it had to be around the next bend. About half a mile in, we turned a corner and the stream disappeared into fifty yards of dense mud. Grant put his paddle into it just to see if it would hold our weight. The smell that was birthed as the paddle sunk a foot below the surface was all the answer we needed. I pulled out my phone acting as a GPS and gauged we maybe had 200 hundred yards to reach Raven. It was not going to happen in these conditions. The only saving grace, as if by some divine miracle, the stream widened slightly into a murky pool as it ended into the mud pit. There was no room to spare as we were able to swing the canoe around and begin the trudge back to Roe. The black flies, as if sensing they were losing their prey, increased their attack. It was one of the lower moments of any Boundary Waters trip I had experienced thus far. It had taken us over three hours to reach that point and with the prize so close, we certainly felt cheated having to turn around.
We caught our breath once we returned Roe and filtered some water. I asked Grant to pass me a granola bar. That morning, we had discussed packing some for the day. He assumed I had grabbed them and I had assumed the opposite. It was laughable and terrible at the same time. No snacks today. We decided to make the slow trek back to the portage and I tossed a Rapala in the middle of Roe as we slowly made our way across. It seemed the wind had calmed somewhat but would still gust occasionally sending our boat off course. I quickly snagged a Lilypad and tried to slow our advance to retrieve the lure. With my drag set way too high and the rod firmly affixed to the rod holder, a quick gust of wind hit at the wrong time and I didn’t react quick enough as the flex of the rod met its limit. The rod quickly snapped two thirds of the way up. The line broke off as well and the tip of the rod disappeared into the dark depths. I was already in a pretty foul mood and this was icing on the cake. Thankfully I had brought two rods for the trip. A few expletives later on my part and we decided to start the trek back. Despite the shortened nature of the rod, I was still able troll and jig so all hope was not lost. We headed back into Sagus and slowly fished the northern shores. As the lake narrows on the north side, we landed a few walleyes in about 25 feet of water.
Exhausted from the day already, we decided cleaning fish wasn’t on the agenda for today so we sent them back to the depths. We decided to take the longer 57 rod portage from Sagus straight into Fraser. Despite the slow troll back with four lines in the water, we didn’t have any success and made it back to camp just shy of 7 pm. We were beat down and so tired.
Davis must have seen our tired expressions and felt a bit of relief as we recounted the terrible trek and relative lack of fishing success. We heard about his relaxed day at camp filled with naps, reading, and shore fishing. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of jealousy and made a mental note that tomorrow I would take it easy. The entire day in the sun had really taken its toll and that night I was rewarded with a massive migraine despite multiple Nalgenes of water and 4 tablets of Ibuprofen. A bowl of chili was a good call for dinner with minimal dirty dishes and just add water for preparation. Dinner helped the headache immensely, as did a cigar with a small glass of Bulleit. Sleep soon followed and I didn’t get several pages into my book before exhaustion took over.
~Fraser Lake, Shepo Lake, Sagus Lake, Roe Lake
Another morning sleeping in until 7:30 am. As I've mentioned, one of my favorite times on these trips is waking up very early and getting out on the water fishing before anyone else is up. I had only managed to do that one morning thus far. Maybe I was overdoing it. A small headache lingered from the previous day’s escapades. A cup of coffee and a stack of pancakes with bacon put me back on track. We had briefly debated doing a large loop and heading up to the south arm of Knife, then west all the way to Moose Lake. I was glad we had passed on the idea as it afforded us several more layover days including this one.
Mid-morning, I took the solo canoe out for another spin and decided to work the north side of Thomas. I was amazed at the schools of fish I could see with the fish finder in 25-30 feet of water. I could even track my lure down to them. But regardless of what was being presented, I couldn’t find much traction. Even QueticoMike’s ShadZ went untouched on multiple passes. I found a little luck in the northern bays and managed to land a smaller sized pike that attacked a rattling crankbait. I did make note on the map of several areas ripe with fish that we could try around dusk. After three hours or so, I made my way back to camp. Everyone seemed pretty content to read, sit in the sun, and catch early afternoon naps.
As we lounged, a group of three canoes took residence at the site to the south. The site is a bit close in my opinion, but not so much that they gave us much bother.
I surveyed the food situation and realized I had probably brought enough food to feed five or six for a week. We were burning through some of the heavier items which made the blue barrel much more manageable. Midafternoon, the three of us collectively decided to head back to the northern shores I had fished that morning to try our luck. I assured Grant and Davis I knew where to find fish, I just could guarantee they would jump onto their lines. The Garmin confirmed the schools were still there, but multiple passes proved their interest in eating was much of the same as it was in the morning. Davis did manage to land a sizable walleye, but despite hitting the same spot for the next 30-45 minutes, we couldn’t replicate the catch. As it drifted past 7 pm, we were leery of sundown and the mosquito hoard that would inevitably descend on camp.
As we approached our campsite, a low-lying smoke trail from a nearby campfire hung in the air. A pair of adults swam offshore the site just south of us. As I eased upon our site, I politely asked if they were aware of the status of the fire ban. “Lifted Friday is what we were told”. Once back at camp, we fired up the Garmin InReach and I sent a message to my wife to confirm the fire ban status. She put in a call to the outfitter who assured her that small campfires were once again permitted. We dutifully collected firewood and I began to lament the decision to leave the Silky saw and Bruks hatchet at home. Thankfully Davis had brought a hatchet of sorts that reminded me more a large butcher knife. It was decent for small and medium branches, but the bigger stuff was sweat inducing. I had gambled that the fire ban wouldn’t be lifted while we were out here and wouldn’t miss the added weight. It was a decision I would end up regretting. Regardless, we were able to collect enough small downed branches to get a fire going. Dinner consisted of chicken burritos from PackItGourmet. I was really started to get impressed with the quality of these meals and they sure did not leave us hungry. We topped it off with some instant cheesecake which always reminds me more of cheesecake flavored pudding. We jokingly debated adding some berries from the neighboring bushes but not being much of a botanist, I decided against it.
As night descended, we all huddled close to the fire, not for the needed warmth but from the perceived protection the smoke afforded us against the mosquitoes. We laid some Thermacell filters on top of the grate for some added deterrent. As darkness ensued, the clear sky slowly presented a brilliant display of stars. As the bourbon bottle made several rounds around the fire, we all stared at the stars for several hours before reluctantly turning in for the night.
Today was a travel day. Our tow was due 3 pm on Ensign tomorrow. We had debated the various scenarios. Travel back to Ima today and make the rest of the way Day 7. If we could, we wanted to get all the way to Ensign today and minimize any travel on the last day. We also were feeling pretty tired and a shower and cold beer began to factor into our decision making. After waking up about 7 am, followed by a cup of coffee with pork polenta, we started the chore of packing up camp. A large toad joined our efforts by guarding the blue barrel.
While some may enjoy packing up camp, I find it slightly melancholy as if something exciting is coming to an end. This is especially true towards the end of a trip. I don’t think my muscles had entirely forgiven me for the Poopland march and doing 6-8 portages didn’t seem like an easy task. We said goodbye to campsite number 1188 and pushed off heading for the northwest portage.
We were on the water before 9 am in relatively calm conditions. The travel day was mostly enjoyable as we recounted the portage locations and seemed to make pretty good time. There was a fair bit of canoe traffic coming the other way.
Portage etiquette is a lost art in my opinion. Several times we were midportage with packs on the far side when another group would beach their canoes next to our packs and begin to unload. One group even chose to put there packs essentially right next to ours. The same group started around a fifty rod portage when we were making our second pass across. There was no question what we were doing and which direction we were going. One individual from the rival group tried to portage their canoe the opposite direction as I was making my way with the We-No-Nah Encounter. It made for an awkward encounter in the middle of the portage. When we had deposited the first load on the far side, no one was in site so there was no mistaking that the portage was being used. I gave my counterpart an annoyed glance as a stepped into the brush and told them to keep moving. This happened maybe twice on the trip and I always debate on if I should kindly educate them that it is not only poor manners, it’s also against the rules. I’d have no reservations about throwing them under the bus if a ranger happened to be in the right place and time. I was taught if someone was on the portage, you waited until it was clear. On these occasions I just held my tongue, convinced if it turned into an argument, it would ruin my experience for the rest of the day. I nodded as they said hello and tried my best to hide the anger/annoyance.
We did run into a pair of very nice older men from the twin cities that were also headed back into Ensign. They weren’t the speediest and Grant earned some extra points for volunteering to carry several of their packs across one of the portages as we patiently waited for them to clear the portage. We also came upon a couple that looked familiar and quickly learned we had passed them on the narrow passage next to Hatchett lake four days prior. They were a pair of teachers from Wisconsin and had exited the Boundary Waters to resupply, only to pick up a new group of friends and head in for another week. What a wonderful schedule to have summers off that must be. A sizable perk to an otherwise very tough and underpaid profession in my opinion.
Another site was a large canoe we passed on Ima Lake. I had never before witnessed 5 people in one canoe! Fully loaded with mom at the bow and dad at the stern, three kids probably all under 10 helped paddle from the middle.
By early afternoon, we found ourselves on a large rock on the east side of Gibson Lake eating lunch. The 112 rod portage into Ashigan followed by the 54 rod into Ensign was all that remained. We hauled the barrel to the top of the rock and promptly finished all of the jelly and bread that remained.
We hit Ensign in between 2 and 3 pm. The wind was moderate east to west which made the stretch easier. We were pleasantly surprised to find most of the sites on Ensign unoccupied. I had made a note based on my own research of several sites. We stopped by 1224 and Grant and Davis did a quick tour. “We can do better” was the consensus. Across the lake, 1225 had a multitiered rock ledge out front with a nice almost sandy takeout. The common area was nice and open with five or six trails away from the center. Just for completeness, I rounded the corner to check out 1226. The truly awesome thing about that site was the fire grate. Someone had clearly devoted a significant amount to time to building almost a hearth with two flat stones on either side serving as tables. I was surprised and annoyed to find a stack of papers in a Ziplock bag on one of the “side tables” held in place by a small rock. The first page read “Guide to Finding Jesus” or something along those lines. They had also wrapped paracord around some sticks to try to make somewhat of a rudimentary rake. While I’m sure the previous occupants were well intentioned, the Leave No Trace philosophy doesn’t exactly make exceptions for religious material or wilderness tools. If they didn’t haul it out, someone else would have to, and therefore they weren’t doing anyone any favors. I didn’t grab it at the time and had some regret now that I think back upon it for not disposing of it when I had the chance.
We opted for 1225. I had a little trouble finding two trees at the desired distance for my hammock. I ended up being about ten feet short so just extended one of my straps with another ENO daisy chain strap. I nearly broke my ankle as I hopped off one of the rock ledges and saw the ground slithering underneath my feet, narrowly missing a 3-foot garter snake.
I had read about great walleye fishing just to the west. Grant and I set off in separate boats and after several hours of not a single bite, we called it quits around 7 pm. Dinner was a combination of macaroni and cheese with mashed potatoes and you guessed it, griddle cakes. We ran out of “good” bourbon the night before and were down to our last bottle of Revel Stoke Pecan Flavored Whiskey. It had a strange similarity to Robitussin with a thick sugary taste. But any whiskey around a campfire is better than nothing and nonetheless we had a great last night discussing our final day. The tow was originally scheduled for 3 pm, but we wanted a chance to walk around Ely and do some shopping. A Garmin InReach message later, and we were confirmed for an 11 am pickup. We also learned there were some storms approaching.
After an obligatory cigar, we all turned in for the night. The storm hit around midnight and while not quite as severe as our first night, it was enough wind and rain to keep me awake. I made a mental note to never extend the hammock straps. The extra ten feet or so on one side lead to very little wind producing a heavy bounce in the hammock. I also misjudged the height and found my feet laying what felt like a foot above my head. It was once again not a great night of sleep. I had purchased a HammockTent from a small company out of Switzerland but given the lay is perpendicular to the hang line, I didn’t feel confident my current tarp would keep my feet and head dry. Maybe next trip.
I made my way down to the departing canoes and was handed an almost empty bottle of pecan flavored whiskey. "We've done our part, last bit is yours", I was told by my companions. They assured me we couldn't depart until the entire bottle had been extinguished. Not the breakfast I'm accustomed to, but after a few heavy swigs later, we were on our way.
As if the lake didn’t want us to leave, the heavy east to west wind that had helped immensely yesterday now had reversed into a steady headwind. The hour or so paddle across Ensign was mostly silent except for various songs mostly of the classic rock or country genre with “Chonky Boy” substituted for some part of the chorus (imagine Toby Keith, "Should've Been a Chonky Boy"). Ten minutes after 11 am, we pulled into the portage and I did a quick load across to make sure the tow driver wasn’t waiting on us. He hadn’t arrived, but I was met by nice elderly gentleman in his late 70s starting the portage. John was his name and told me he routinely tripped alone after his son had made him a grandfather 8 years or so prior. I offered to give him a hand, but he said he had it under control and I walked with him instead trading stories about his past trips and future plans. He was sporting a “Boundary Waters Journal” ballcap and proudly told me he was published a year or two prior with a sizable pike he had caught. I tried to turn him onto bwca.com, but he said he wasn't much for technology or the internet. After I introduced him to Grant and Davis waiting at the other side of the portage, he packed up and shoved off. The guys told me he made it a ways out and promptly turned around. We assumed he had forgotten something, but when he pulled up, he asked Grant if he wouldn’t mind taking his picture. Tripping solo, he said he never had any decent photos of himself. Grant gladly obliged and I’m sure took more than several photos that he could share with friends and family.
As we unpacked and made our way across the portage, we saw the friendly tow driver pulling up as if on que. After a few quick photos, we were loaded up and back on the docks at Williams and Hall less than half an hour later. We thanked Dave once again for a great trip and as if he read our minds, handed us each a cold beer and towel.