BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
March 04 2024
Number of Permits per Day: 27
Elevation: 1356 feet
Hybrid Solo 3 Guys and a Dog
September 06, 2021
Snowbank Lake (27)
Number of Days:
I then got an invitation to join my friend Stew (Portagedog09) and his son Ben who were going in for a week from Moose Lake which had opened back up. I jumped at the chance to get on their permit. I’ve known Stew from message boards like this one and meet ups at the annual Canoecopia convention in Madison Wisconsin for several years. We tripped together in a group of six in 2019 so we weren’t strangers.
I arrive at our outfitter, William and Hall on Moose Lake after an uneventful 10 hour drive on Sunday. We would spend the night in their bunkhouse, have breakfast there then get a 20 minute boat shuttle over to Splash Lake the next morning to start our trip on Monday Sept. 6th.
I met Stew on the front porch along with Ben his oldest son who was around mid 30’s. He was last in canoe country when in the boy scouts almost 20 years ago. He was excited to get back up here as he lives in California now. Stew flew in from Virginia and I’m from outside Chicago.
We had dinner in the dining room and went over our maps. Thomas Lake was decided as our first destination. The only question was if we could make it there on day one or on day two. “We’ll play it by ear and see how we are feeling” we all agreed. Stew and Ben would need to be back after 6 nights while I had 10 or 11 nights available so we would split up at some point.
Not much is more exciting than the morning a trip begins. William and Hall Outfitters, Ely Minnesota [img]https://i.imgur.com/VkFumYG.jpg?1[/img]
Up at 5:30 we dress in our tripping clothes and haul packs to the towboat. Everything is organized, we park the cars and have a big classic breakfast of pancakes and bacon with lots of coffee for me. The forecast says sunny and 60’s with mild westerly winds. Couldn’t be more perfect! It also says heavy rain overnight and rain on Tuesday. We decide to push on to Thomas today instead of packing up in the rain on Tuesday.
Stew Pic [img]https://i.imgur.com/pM7M7PH.jpg?1[/img]
William and Hall General Manager/Guide - Dave Sebesta, pic courtesy Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/J197poc.jpg?1[/img]
Stew pic - Splash Lake portage landing [img]https://i.imgur.com/oX7TJi0.jpg?1[/img]
Paddling is great. It’s so nice to be back up here smelling the pines. This is Luna’s 6th trip with me so she knows the drill. She loves to portage between the lakes and her enthusiasm inspires me as I tire throughout the day. We go east through Ensign 55 rods into Ashigan for a short paddle for a 105 rod portage into Gibson. Then it’s 2 short ports into Cattyman and Jordan Lakes before hitting the long narrow channel that leads into Ima Lake. This narrows is very scenic with high bluffs at waters edge. The painted turtles sunbathe on flat rocks along the shore. It’s quiet and starting to feel wild.
Jordan Lake narrows on way to Ima Lake. Pic by Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/ViRBGwg.jpg?1[/img]
Me and Luna on the trail - pic courtesy Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/5HMSdaV.jpg?1[/img]
With a light tailwind we easily cross big, open Ima Lake to the 55 rodder into Hatchet Creek. Three more very short portages and we land on Thomas Lake around 4:00 PM. We’re feeling pretty cooked from all the excursion so now it’s a matter of finding a decent site. There’s many here to choose from and after research and reading camp reviews we narrow it down to 4 or 5 we’d like to stay at. We stop and look at 3 sites before we settle on a beauty tucked in on a strip of peninsula near the SW bay of Thomas.
Great landing here as well as fireplace but the fire ban is in effect so Stew and Ben set up a kitchen area under Stew’s big white CCS tarp. Their two tents are behind that and I set up my hammock along with Luna’s “pup tent” way in the back. We will be here for 5 nights and couldn’t have asked for a better place to hang out.
After camp is set and water gathered and filtered we have dinner. I have a tradition of making large sandwiches for lunch and dinner the first day (no mess) so polish off a big salami and swiss with mayo and giardinara peppers. We sit up till dark, chat and get to know each other a bit then head off to well earned sleep.
Thomas Lake site [img]https://i.imgur.com/VYXwgm8.jpg[/img]
My shanty set up in back [img]https://i.imgur.com/1noeT4o.jpg[/img]
Overnight it stormed big time! This had it all, heavy rain, gusty wind, close lightning and thunder. The tarp over my hammock would pool rainwater until dumping right outside my door splashing all my gear under me. I stay dry but getting out the next day there’s pools of water all over the site. Stew’s big white tarp pooled water then collapsed one of his aluminum poles, snapping it in half.
It’s not raining but very dark and dreary. I’ve got a bad headache most likely from dehydration so pop a tylenol. I’m moving slowly still feeling the effects of the days paddle yesterday. Coffee and a trail bar get me perked up.
A short walk from our porch is a thin sand beach perfect to throw the ball for Luna. She’s 10 now but being a border collie she needs her exercise. Swimming for a ball is something she loves to do so I set up my chair on the beach and we play a bit. Today I’ll re-rig my 2 tarps to better fend off any rain and then we all plan to go fishing. Stew and Ben shove off first. It rains off and on and the wind is up. We can’t go out on the main lake as it’s too dangerous with the wind. I decide I’m not up for the boat today so take a nap and hopefully can fish near dusk. (This is where my journal ends for day 1)
I’m up at 7:00 and feeling much better. Cook up blueberry chocolate pancakes with 5 pieces of pre cooked bacon. Today is a day to fish with the weather having calmed down. Stew and Ben are out first. I throw the ball to get Luna tired enough for the canoe and get on the water around 10:00.
Right away I snag on rocks and lose a leader and a tail dancer lure. Then it happens again. The line was used the year before and apparently was frayed about 4 feet up the line. So I strip off 10 feet and rig up again. That solves the problem.
Tough little tree [img]https://i.imgur.com/TBy5Z5L.jpg[/img]
I troll the eastern shore up to the north and pull in to a sliver of a bay which holds a campsite. I can only see the small landing but no sign of the site in the thick trees. It’s a good spot for lunch so we get out and explore. It turns out it’s a very cool site tucked in the trees. Hardly a view of the main water but a nice fireplace with level spots for two tents. Not bad if you want solitude.
I continue fishing around islands and make my way back to camp trolling. Almost back and I feel a fish on. I bring it in and it’s a beautiful 23 inch lake trout. Exactly what I am looking for! I quickly filet it on a nearby flat rock then head into camp.
Stew and Ben are not long after and they come in with a 14 inch walleye. Fish for dinner. I gave my filets to Stew as, well, he’s a really good cook! He likes to do it up. tonight we’ll have deep fried filets that were breaded in a pecan mix. There is also wild rice, corn, scrambled eggs done up in the leftover fish oil and a chocolate mousse for dessert.
For a nightcap as the sun fell we broke out the liquor. I shared my makers mark and Stew passed a flask of $150 rum. Yes, you read that right. Tripping with Stew has its perks.
It’s warm and calm this morning. I share my pancakes and bacon with Luna by mixing some with her food. She gets spoiled on these trips and I give her some of our food at every meal. She’s a great dishwasher too!
Breakfast was usually by my tent and dinners under Stew's set up. pics courtesy Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/M5rb9kI.jpg?1[/img]
Today Stew and Ben are day tripping through Fraser Lake and portaging into small Shepo Lake in search of walleyes. I’ll be doing laundry, sitting at the beach and throwing the ball for awhile. I then go for a swim and dry off in the sun on our rock porch. I do some exploring in the woods around our site and find a massive old growth white pine among the cedars. This tree is impressive and who knows, maybe a couple 2 or 3 hundred years old.
I decide I won’t go out fishing so I read for a while then take a relaxing nap in the hammock as the breeze blows in the treetops. This is one of my favorite kind of days in canoe country. No electronics, nowhere to be, just time to chill.
The guys came in with 3 small walleye. They ate the fish while I made a shepherds pie of sort with mashed potatoes, dehydrated elk and veggies. Stew brought a tub of real butter so I added that as well. Fantastic!
This morning you guessed it - blueberry chocolate pancakes and bacon. I’ve got my new stove dialed in now so don’t burn any. ** My journal here says “I need to bring more pancakes next time”. LOL I think the portions weren’t big enough to give Luna very much.
I went fishing all day today and got skunked. To add insult to injury I lost another titanium leader and $10 lure to the rocks. That’s 3 of each so far. I pull in to camp and find that Stew brought back a 28 inch northern and a 14 inch walleye.
Me and Luna get lots of fried northern tonight. Luna got hers without the breading. Afterward we passed around Ben’s Japanese whiskey. Very tasty stuff. I share my makers mark as we sit by water’s edge and admire the calm sunset with a loon chorus. It’s so good to be in canoe country and with great company as well.
Pic courtesy Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/M2ngRbp.jpg?1[/img]
Seagull pictographs [img]https://i.imgur.com/m9GzNP2.jpg[/img]
Stew pic [img]https://i.imgur.com/VBEEHxo.jpg?1[/img]
Pic courtesy of Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/tCbg3k3.jpg?2[/img]
It’s moving day and everyone is up before 7:00. I taking my time but Stew and Ben have some portaging to do on the way to the South Arm of Knife Lake to the north. They plan to spend a night there before heading back to the outfitters the next day. Ben has a flight to catch and be back at work next week. Stew will spend next week at the outfitters and do all kinds of cool stuff like taking a small plane ride with his friend over the lakes and seeing the fire damage outside the park.
We say our goodbyes at the landing before they shove off.
I’m loaded and on the water at 10:25. I’ve decided to spend the next four nights on Fraser Lake just to the north east. There are no portages as the two lakes connect with a narrow channel. It’s a perfect day when I leave but the wind picks up and makes the going rough until I’m in the channel. The water levels are low this year and I scrape bottom in one section and have to weave around rock gardens to get through.
I got tipped off by Stew to look for a site in the west corner. Just follow the shore left once in Fraser and look for a big sloping rock slab. Stew and Lawrence (MagicPaddler) did a trip together and stayed here in July of this year. The site sits very high up on a flat bench with woods behind. It’s fairly exposed to the southeast facing the lake but I pick a site tucked back in the woods to hang the hammock. The canoe landing is excellent.
Fraser Lake site [img]https://i.imgur.com/AC1isdJ.jpg[/img]
I set up my small tarp for a kitchen area right in front of the woods on a very flat dirt floor. This will be home for the next 4 nights. It's Just me and Luna now. We are in luck as the landing has several great flat rock ledges to throw the ball for her in the water. The view from here of the lake is spectacular with several islands right out front. It’s a change from our protected bay on Thomas.
I’ve got ham re-hydrating for a mac and cheese dinner and settle in with my Sig Olson book on a perfect sunny 70 degree day with a light breeze.
Breakfast in canoe country
I know this is a trout lake so I set out in the canoe and troll the main lake north on the east side of the big islands. I want to scout out the portage to Shepo for a day trip later on.
This is how I load for a day of fishing. There are two dry bags filled with water in the stern and a pack with my food barrel. This is weight needed to balance Luna's 50 lbs. in the bow. I also keep an extra cup fastened to my seat in case I need a sip from the lake. In the big lakes it's safe to do this out over deep water. I would not do this near shore or in a shallow lake.
As I troll near the tip of the long island to the north I felt a fish on. It was heavy but wasn’t fighting, instead letting me slowly pull it to the boat. Then, apparently seeing my canoe it took off. Down it went as my drag started singing. It was a while before I could coax it back near the boat and then I saw it. A very large lake trout! I was so happy it wasn’t a northern pike. Conscious of breaking the line I let the fish play itself out before clamping it’s lower jaw with my orange fish gripper.
I knew it was way too big to eat so I worked quickly in order for it to survive. Luckily the barbless hooks came out quick. I took a pic then held it in the water by its tail until it was strong enough to powerfully dig for the bottom. **I didn't measure it to limit the time it was out of the water. These are delicate fish and the less stress on them the better chance of their survival.
What a thrill. That was by far the largest lake trout I’ve ever caught I estimate around 30 inches but it was very thick. The coloration was something I’ve only seen on Burt Lake. Very dark with pink hues. The trout up here have been silver, dark green, and this dark pink. I caught a beautiful copper colored one in Quetico also. Just awesome fish and they are becoming my favorite to catch while up in these lakes.
I then went to a campsite on the north end for lunch. Both the sites in this area are not the best. A lot of blowdown and poor landings.
Luna is 10 now. Such a good companion on these trips.
Back in camp I saw two tandem canoes cross through the lake coming in from Thomas. As far as I can tell I have the lake to myself. I have to believe the park closure right before my trip contributed to this. We didn’t see many campers while on Thomas either.
Today I plan a day trip into Shepo for walleyes. It’s oatmeal as I’m out of pancakes. Luna gets a bunch too. A perfectly calm sunny warm day as I head out. Originally I want to go into Sagus Lake but the water level is so low I can’t get to the portage landing out of Shepo. So I paddle around throwing a spinnerbait and get an 18 inch northern in Shepo and that’s it.
On the way back we stop at the Fraser landing for lunch. What a great spot to swim! Luna has a blast jumping off the flat ledge into deep water and swimming for her ball.
I trolled the deep part of Fraser on my way home with no luck and then decided to explore the small bay to the NW of my site. It’s deep in here, like 80 feet. So I trolled down to 20 feet and went back and forth and - nothing. I then go to the campsite tucked in the back of the bay. Not bad at all and has a small sand beach landing, good fireplace and two real nice tent pads back in the woods. I would definitely stay here if "my site" is ever occupied.
I notice the weather is changing. Thick clouds rolling in and the wind picks up. Soon it starts to sprinkle. Then it rains. I batten down my tarps and stow away any loose gear before climbing in the hammock. Luna is tucked in her tent which she loves. I have a pad with a fleece blanket that she curls up on. Some mornings she will just lay in there even after I unzip her door.
So it really starts to rain and pretty soon it’s a “gusher”. It does this all through the night. A hard pouring rain. I’d love to know the rain totals after this one. Hopefully the fires got some of it too.
The morning was wet and gloomy. [img]https://i.imgur.com/okQCHi0.jpg[/img]
My tarps did great. There’s pools of water all over the site and little rivers flowing into the lake. It’s drizzling but I cook breakfast under the tarp. I make a huge scrambled egg dish with powdered eggs, dehydrated peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese. Luna gets a bunch mixed with her food. 2 cups of strong coffee and we are satisfied.
Today is spent in camp. I need to fix my portage yoke. It won’t attach to one side of the boat causing it to slide around when carrying the canoe. This happened on Day one so I asked Stew for advice. Turns out it was great advice! Like Lawrence, he is part MaCgyver. Very handy in other words. In short I cut a six inch, one inch diameter piece of pine in half and taped the two pieces to the gunnel so they would wedge the yoke in place. I then used cord and tied one end of the yoke to the other going under the canoe with the cord. Worked perfectly the next day.
My complete set of dishes except for a pair of bacon tongs not shown. The green handle is a telescoping lexan spoon I use for stirring in the pot. I usually air dry on a rock after washing. Apparently these got rained on.
Alarm went off at 6:00 but it was dark. I decided to get up and see if I could catch the sunrise. It was the classic canoe country morning in September. The cold during the night created a mist over the lake. It was dead calm and I got out my camera. These shots are a time-lapse of sort taken down by the landing.
It’s these moments and many others that keep me coming back every year. When the wind is down it gets so quiet. The loons are almost always on the lakes and doing their calls. It’s magical to witness this beauty.
We are packed and on the water at 9:40. Going through the channel back into Thomas was way different. That big rain has raised the water level and I had no trouble this time getting through. Luna likes the scenery too.
Back into Thomas Lake on the way to Ima Lake. Gorgeous travel day! [img]https://i.imgur.com/zI3Qegj.jpg[/img]
I meet another solo at the landing at Ima. It was his first trip and he was from Pittsburgh. Nice fellow on his way to Thomas. I tell him about our nice site there and point it out on the map for him.
On our way we veer left at Adventure Lake as I’ll be taking out on Snowbank Lake. I had William and Hall shuttle my truck over there yesterday for me. This way I can see different lakes on our way out.
I stopped for lunch at the Cattyman Lake landing and was sitting there eating when two tandem boats of women pulled up. Luna was thrilled as they really enjoyed petting her. We had a nice chat and I told of no vacancies on Jordan where they planned to camp. Most likely they went on to Ima to spend the night. They also told me that Disappointment Lake was pretty full too. That is my destination. They warned of a strong storm with high winds in the forecast for tonight. I didn't bring my weather radio this trip so it was good to know.
Cattyman Lake Lunch stop [img]https://i.imgur.com/XkqCJKQ.jpg[/img]
So we go through Jitterbug and Ahsub lakes and portage into Disappointment. There’s 9 sites on the lake so surely one will be open. I start off on the big lake and find the first three are taken. I then run into a large canoe with 3 guys also looking for a site. They had come from the other way with no luck. They said the site next to the last portage is open but didn’t look good so they passed on it.
Off I went with a little more urgency in my paddle hoping that last site would still be open. I find it and it’s vacant! It’s in a shallow bay and might be buggy. Beggars can't be choosers so I take it and get set up quickly because of the forecast. We settle in with a perfectly calm sunset until dark. No bugs and I gotta think it's because of the low water up here all summer. In the hammock after dark I hear faint rumblings. The wind can be heard gusting through tree tops far away. A little after this it starts to Drizzle…. The rumbling is more frequent and gets louder.....
Disappointment Lake Campsite. Bracing for the storm.
Thursday September 17th
It stormed hard overnight. I think being in the bay and fairly sheltered on 3 sides kept me out of the wind. I could hear it blowing in the trees but never felt it. In the morning all was wet. I needed a bath but it was shallow and mucky around the landing so I decided to take a bath in the woods. I filled all my containers and dry bags from the lake and hauled it all to a semi clearing with a soft pine duff floor. I got buck naked and rinsed down, soaped up and rinsed again. Oh yes! WOOO! That was cold and great. Now I’m ready for civilization.
Packed up, I head out on a breezy sunny morning and made the long 140 rod portage into Snowbank. It was basically a walk in the park as it sees much use every year. I was in good shape now and my food barrel was almost empty. The real challenge is crossing massive Snowbank Lake to the parking lot at the entry point. The wind is now in my face and there are occasional whitecaps.
I was ok until I passed the big island and was fully exposed to the westerly winds sweeping over the lake. I was quartering into the whitecaps now and busting my butt to the landing. I passed close to a small island and I could see something white through the bushes near shore. I paddled a little more and saw a huge bald eagle tearing at a fish it held in its talons. I was close, maybe 15 yards from shore but it was so busy it didn’t notice me. Then it did! It suddenly raised up and that massive 7 foot wingspan flapped into the wind and the giant bird floated off with the breeze and a foot long smallmouth bass clutched underneath. So cool and a perfect way to finish the trip!
I made the dock exhausted from fighting the wind. There were three middle aged couples just getting ready to start their annual trip together. They asked if I would take a group pic of them. I noticed how clean their clothes were and they didn’t seem tired at all. It’s how we all start our trips and slowly we change over a week or longer into dirty, ragged, bearded beasts. Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration but let's just say I'm glad I somewhat showered.
Down the twenty minute Fernberg Rd. takes me into Ely Minnesota. The tourists cram the sidewalks and cars and trucks with canoes on top line the main drag. Back to the hustle and bustle it is. It’s kind of like waking from a beautiful dream.
It was a different kind of trip for me in that I spent so much time at 2 sites. Usually I'm on the move much more and typically travel far and make 5-6 camps. I purposefully wanted to slow down and relax more this time. It was a real good trip. This "Hybrid" of going solo really suits me. Part with company, and part solo with dog. I'll look to do more adventures like this in the future.
Stew took this pic of an eagle skeleton found when portaging from Thomas Lake to the South Arm of Knife Lake. [img]https://i.imgur.com/oZVBEWv.jpg?1[/img]
After dropping son Ben off at the airport, He returned to spend the week at William and Hall Outfitters. He's been a long time customer of theirs and helped around the cabins along with going on a tow ride with another party. Another friend in the area owns a small plane and invited Stew to go for a ride. Not a bad vacation in the beautiful north woods of Minnesota.
Pic courtesy of Stew [img]https://i.imgur.com/8cCGBKD.jpg?1[/img]
Side note: When I got to the Snowbank parking lot I was putting the canoe on top of the jeep when a silver car rolls up and parks behind me. I look and - IT'S STEW! There's some great timing for ya. He was just coming to see if I got out ok. Pretty good dude that Stew is.