BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
July 06 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 8
Elevation: 1191 feet
Snowbank Lake - 27
Snowbank to Knife and Back
August 28, 2009
Number of Days:
It was the morning of Day One, and we were already behind schedule. Rather than waking up before dawn and rousing the troops as planned, I was the last one to crawl out of bed, and an hour late at that. We had arrived the night prior to pick up the canoes Mike B’s family was lending us and to stay the night, hoping for an early start on Snowbank. Mike B’s folks set us up with the boats, then feted us with grilled beasts, garden vegetables and homemade wine. After dinner we did a final gear shakedown. Mike B, an Iron Range native and Eagle Scout, had spent lots of time in the Boundary Waters as a kid, but mostly in motor boats on Basswood, and never to stay. I had given him a sleeping bag stuff sack for him to pack his clothes in, as well as a detailed list of what he’d need and what he wouldn’t. Understandably, Mike B concluded that I meant for him to fill the stuff sack completely, and so most of the gear shakedown was spent depriving him of redundant gear. After we’d reduced his pack load by about half, we sorted tackle - which would be his responsibility given his superior fishing knowledge. While beers and whiskey went around, the night got long.
I really don’t think my alarm went off at all, but regardless, it was Mike B who got up first and got us moving in those early hours. Soon enough we were on the road and at our entry point, Snowbank Lake.
I’d never paddled Snowbank before, only seen it, at a great distance, from the Kek during a snowshoe hike last winter. But I knew its reputation and I’ve paddled enough big water to know that a lake like that can make things real interesting real fast. The morning was dark and grey and the forecast called for rain and winds up around 15 mph by mid day. Hardly a catastrophe, but given that we had two novice bow men, two leaders a little lean on sterning experience, and two canoes I had never paddled before, I wasn’t eager to test our mettle on Snowbank.
But fair weather or foul, I was determined to get on the water. I concealed my apprehension and fell in with the high spirits of the rest of the group. As we pushed off from the Snowbank landing, a cool, steady rain began to fall. No one complained. It was a beautiful, misty morning and it was good to get the paddle in my hands again. Mike B proved to be a strong paddler, and the boat tracked nicely across the water. The winds stayed nice and light, allowing us an easy passage north to the Boot Lake portage. I didn’t time it exactly but I’d say we made it the whole journey in about 45 minutes - not bad.
Now a note about the boats. I’m very spoiled in that I typically have access to three beautiful, handmade cedar strip canoes built by some close friends of mine. For a variety of logistical reasons, we decided not to take any of the wooden boats on this trip. Mike B’s family and his in-laws live in the area and own several boats between them, so it made sense that we would use theirs. As it turned out, the two available that weekend were a lightweight aluminum (sounds like an oxymoron, but it was only 55 lbs) and an 80 lbs. Alumacraft. We were very grateful for the free boats but some logistical issues had to be re-thought.
My philosophy of Boundary Waters travel is predicated on single-portaging. One man takes a relatively light Duluth pack and the boat (with paddles and rods strapped inside), while the other guy takes a heavier internal frame pack and any loose gear. You walk the portage once and you’re ready to hit the next lake, no problem. Mike B’s boats used a different yoke than I was used to (see pictures). While they were very comfortable when carrying just the boat, the different yokes pretty much made single-portaging impossible: the pads are so long they would actually sit on the Duluth pack, redistributing the weight into the small of your back and causing some major balance issues. Movie Mike powered through the second link of the Boot portage with the lighter canoe and a Duluth pack, but I only made it a few steps with the Alumacraft and my portage pack before nearly falling backwards.
So, it would be a double-portage trip - packs and paddles first, then walk back and get the boats and anything else. Not a tragedy, but it does take a lot more time. After a rainy paddle through Boot we took on the portage to Ensign, listed as a 220 on our Fisher maps. Clearing the portage, with no significant breaks, probably took us an hour and 15 minutes. Arriving at Ensign it was now early afternoon and time for lunch - but given our late start and our greatly slowed travel, it was decided that we would make camp there, rather than push on to Knife as planned.
From the portage we spotted a beautiful campsite on a long, tall rocky point and snatched it up. Since we made camp early, there was plenty of time for a fishing expedition just before dusk. Mike B took charge of the fishing. He had insisted on bringing minnows, which I admit I had been skeptical about, but I was immediately won over when we started catching fish within ten minutes of getting on the water.
I caught the first one, a small walleye. As soon as it was in the boat, we discovered that we had forgotten a stringer. No problem, Mike B quickly fashioned one from some spare parachute chord and in a few minutes I was fishing again. Maybe ten minutes went by when I pulled up a big sucker. Easily the largest fish I'd ever caught, it was nearly as long as my arm. And revolting. Mike B didn't know how to fillet it and it was more meat than we could put down in a night, so back he went in the lake. We paddled to another part of the channel and Movie Mike caught a nice northern, his first fish ever. And shortly after that he landed a perch. While Mike B worked on getting the perch onto the stringer, his own line got a strike, which was soon revealed to be a crayfish attacking his minnow. That went in the boat as well.
The clouds started to break up just as we landed. A faint rainbow broke out over the lake, and the sunset painted the clouds pink. Then a heron flew overhead. Moments later, EP spotted a bald eagle. We all laughed for joy at our good fortune.
After Mike B built a fire and filleted the fish, we enjoyed pan-fried walleye and perch, then I cooked up some Viggo beans and rice with some added northern. All this was washed down with some fresh beer from Fitger’s Brewhouse and of course our signature backcountry cocktail: the Whiskey Josh, a cup of Jameson with a splash of tepid lakewater.
Temperatures dipped low overnight. I gave Movie Mike my 25 degree bag and bundled up to spend the night in my old bag. It was a bit chilly in the hours before dawn but nothing terrible, and in any case despite sleeping in the day before, I generally am the first one up any way. Day 2 dawned grey and blustery. A curious east wind bellowed as we ate our breakfast, two packets of instant oatmeal and freshly roasted Dunn Bros. coffee. While the wind never relented the rain was lighter and more sporadic, so our gear was merely damp when we struck the tents and headed out on the water again.
Now seasoned by a solid day’s travel, everything went more smoothly as we traveled down Ensign to Vera, and across Vera to Knife. Both portages were beautiful - long arcing passages of open rock through a biome that was wholly new to me. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Gunflint side of the Boundary Waters and so this area seemed quite exotic - easy to find landings with pebble beaches, simple, stair-like ascents and nice dry, rocky ridges. And oaks! I’d almost never seem them in the BWCA. With trails as beautiful and strange as these, no one could mind double-portaging.
The sun began to peek through as we took a break for lunch on Vera, and by the end of the lake we had stripped off our rain coats. The portage from Vera to Knife was the most beautiful of all, but did offer one significant challenge spot, a short, steep descent over an awkwardly exposed ledge. Finding discretion to be the better part of valor, we conquered this by dismounting the boats and bringing them down in two man teams. The two men in question turned out to be Movie Mike and myself, who ended up taking both boats both directions.
Knife proved to be well worth the effort. As it was now late afternoon and time to make camp, we chose a site in a bay near the portage to Portage Lake, at the western end of Knife. It was perhaps the most beautiful campsite I'd ever seen. Set on a grassy hill at the side of a long, deep channel, it offered some shelter from the wind without sacrificing views of the lake to the east, including the Isle of Pines. It also had excellent tent pads, a good landing and a couple small beaches. And if that weren't enough, the previous campers had left us a huge pile of nice, dry firewood. They even separated the kindling.
I split wood, made a fire and got dinner started while everyone else went fishing. Nothing was caught but we did feast on more Viggo, and the second growler of beer. We turned in exhausted, elated and satisfied.
By the next morning, Knife Lake had forgotten all about the wind and rain. The lake was perfectly still and warmed by the brilliant sunshine of a cloudless sky. We breakfasted and did some yoga on one of our grassy swards and made plans for the day.
The Mikes elected to take a camp day while EP and I took a day trip to explore the Isle of Pines and Thunder Point. Giddy as school kids, ended up walking nearly the entire permimeter of the Isle of Pines, half in the water and half out. In a small bay close to the shoreline, I found a cool old pocket watch. A friend had told us that you could still find some of Dorothy's junk in the woods, but this exceeded our most optimistic expectations. Although it was hard to do, I dutifully replaced it in the same spot I'd found it, as per Forest Service regulations. Given the number of BW geeks that have visited the island, I suppose the watch has been "discovered" dozens of times. Nearby EP found an old dump or junk pile with lots more artifacts and detritus from days gone by.
I was less enthusiastic to discover a memorial erected on a hill nearby, commemorating someone‘s deceased friend or relative. I sympathize with the desire to make something like this, but I don't think it's justified. Isle of Pines is a historic place - what’s this person’s connection with that history? Even Dorothy doesn’t get plaque on her own island.
I wonder if the Forest Service has a policy on this - it would seem to violate Leave No Trace principles. Eglath and I found a similar shrine by Stairway Falls.
In any case, a little while later, we finally found the famous bacon rock. I could have looked for information on its exact location beforehand, but I had purposefully avoided it to preserve the thrill of discovery. An excellent decision, I have to say.
Feeling satisfied, we left the Isle of Pines and paddled east towards Thunder Point. We enjoyed more radiant sunshine and a nearly empty lake. I had really expected to see more people on Knife but we practically had the place to ourselves. We easily saw more loons than people. On our way back to camp, a loon surfaced 20 feet away from us and gave a series of long, mournful calls as we drifted silently past. I’ve seen plenty of loons of course but I’d never been that close to one when it was calling, and I know I’ll never forget it.
After we got back I still wanted to paddle some more, so Movie Mike and I went to go walk the Big Knife portage. The three different map series have a huge degree of variation between them in this whole area, and the passage between Knife Lake and Carp Lake is a case in point. The Fisher map, which we had, described an 80 rod portage to a slim body of water called Portage Lake (with the larger, unconnected lake to the immediate south also called the same name) followed by two shorter ones into Carp. The Voyageur map doesn't know anything about a "Big Knife Portage" but does describe a 73 rod portage along a Knife River followed by a portage "11 to 33" rods long towards Carp. This is somewhat closer to what we experienced. If there'd been more time, we could have portaged all the way to Carp to decide for ourselves.
That night we changed up the menu - mac and cheese instead of beans and rice. By about halfway through the second day, EP had concluded that she would never again let me pack food for a trip without her involvement. Admittedly, I did go a little Spartan - two oatmeal packets per person per day for breakfast; one Clif bar and a handful of gorp per person per day for snacks; two summer sausage / tortilla sandwiches per person per day for lunch; beans and rice and any fish caught during the day for supper, plus coffee and whiskey and beer, albeit the last of these only for the first two nights (an admitted extravagance). An extra Clif bar would not have been excessive. And maybe a bagel or two in the morning. But you know what? We didn’t die.
Day 4, we left broke camp and left Knife Lake. Though we were sad to leave, our sorrow was mitigated by a plan we had hatched before the trip to spend our last night on Boot Lake, where we hoped to meet Eglath, who was beginning his own solo trip. This required completing all of our Day 1 and Day 2 travel in a single day. It also required that Eglath arrive a day early to claim the site we wanted on Boot, which of course could not be guaranteed.
Any number of things could have gone wrong to prevent our success. We were, again, later getting started than planned, and with double-portaging, we took three times as long as I had expected. We had honed our strategy and EP and Mike B took over portaging their boat, which allowed me and Movie Mike to tackle the Alumacraft as a team (to this point I had portaged it completely on my own, while Movie Mike portaged the other one). As we walked a portage the first two times, I would count my paces. While making the third and final trip over with the boat Movie Mike would take the first leg while I counted my paces yet again: when we reached the halfway point, we would switch and I would take the boat. This spared both our spines even if it didn’t buy us any more time. An unexpected side effect was that we determined that the distance of 220 rods for the Ensign > Boot portage is not accurate. I counted 890 paces on that portage (a pace being each time the same heel touches down, or two steps). I haven’t measured my pace exactly, but using Eglath’s estimate of 1000 paces per mile, that puts the portage well over 220. After returning, a friend of ours suggested that perhaps the distance was originally described as being 220 from Boot to the small pond about 2/3 of the way over, and that the subsequent 65-80 rods were left off some old map and never reintroduced.
While we made steady progress, daylight burned away. Now very hungry and thirsty, we took a break for lunch at a campsite near the Ensign > Boot portage. Eglath had promised to meet us there if the site on Boot was taken, but it occurred to me as we wolfed down our meager rations that it was much later in the day than he would have been expecting us. Although not seeing him on Ensign should have been a good sign, it also meant uncertainty. We might well portage all the way to Boot and still find out site taken with no trace of Eglath - then be forced to portage all the way back across and find a site on Ensign, knowing we’d repeat the same process again the next day, or continue on to Snowbank and hope to camp there.
From the Boot landing there was no hope of seeing Eglath from the site, so we had no choice but to load in the boats and go for it. Exhausted and dispirited, I had abandoned all hope of rendezvousing with Eglath as we paddled out into the early evening still of Boot Lake. But then, miraculously, coming around the point I spotted an elfin, bearded figure by the water's edge. I hailed this man with a private signal known only to a select handful of friends, called the Call of the Marmot. When it was returned to me, echoing majestically over the water, I knew we'd found our friend.
We celebrated the end of our trip and the beginning of Eglath’s with a big meal and a fresh growler of El Nino IPA. Eglath shared his uneaten dinner from last night, and we shared our huge surplus of whiskey. Though it wouldn’t have made any huge logistical difference to either party, we were happy to see each other and meeting up made us all feel like we’d accomplished something. The frivolities lasted long into the night.
The next day we spent a long lazy morning that lasted all the way into the early afternoon. The sun shone. Birds flew. An otter playfully massacred a fish just a few meters off our campsite. No one was in a rush to leave.
With heavy hearts we at last took leave of Boot Lake and the Boundary Waters. Once again the Call of the Marmot thundered through the hills as we saluted Eglath, sending him on to certain glory.
At Snowbank again, I seized the moment to jump in the lake. Movie Mike seized the moment to take a ridiculous picture.
After a long and breezy paddle down Snowbank, we returned to civilization...or Ely, at any rate. Feasting on fresh beer and bacon cheeseburgers was some consolation for leaving the woods behind, but we knew Knife Lake had left its mark on each of us forever.