BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
November 29 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 8
Elevation: 1191 feet
Snowbank Lake - 27
Less Miles Next Time...... Maybe??
July 30, 2022
Moose Lake (25)
Number of Days:
Zach (Indiana), Emily (New York) and myself left the Chicagoland area at 6am so we could pick up Nate in Janesville, WI by 7am.
Once this was completed its pretty much a straight shot up to Superior, WI where we met up with Sara and Gerardo who were coming from Oshkosh, WI. We met at the Culvers for lunch, which is fast becoming a tradition for our trips to the BWCA. We had our canoe reservations through Latourell’s, however there was no room at the inn due to a blueberry festival in Ely, MN that weekend. So, we found and reserved a campsite at Fenske campground which was pretty nice albeit 40 mins from the outfitter…. it would be an early morning. On the way to Ely we traveled a route that took us through some of the burn area from last year’s fires that shut down the BWCA and canceled our trip. We arrived at Fenske campground about 3pm and set everything up and went back into Ely to explore and have dinner.
The campsite was a little small but we smashed our tents in the tent area and I hung my hammock off to the side since I don’t need level ground (big plus to hammock camping). No fire that night as we turned in early so we could get an early start tomorrow morning. Anticipation hung thick in the air as we disappeared one by one to our sleeping arraignments.
We got up early, packed up and left the campsite around 7:30am but realized about 20 minutes into our drive that we forgot the leaches. We turned around to go retrieve the leeches and ended up losing 40 minutes arriving at the outfitters way later than planned. This wasn’t the end of the world but as usual we had an ambitious first day planned to try and get out ahead of the crowds and that set us back. Rumor has it the first week in August is the busiest time in the BWCA especially on the Ely side.
Our first destination lake was Thomas Lake and with storms in the forecast for later that day we wanted to get an early start and find a nice sheltered campsite to ride out the storms. The canoes would be manned by the same teams the whole trip. Nate(bow) and I were together (much to the consternation of the others, more on that later), Zach(bow) and Emily; Gerardo(bow) and Sara. All loaded up, we set off on Snowbank about 9am, a couple hours later than originally planned but we were back!! Adventure here we come!! It took a little while for Nate and I to get back into our groove working as a team but we soon fell into a rhythm that just felt right. However, the others were not finding this same level of rhythm and rightness.
In fact, they were not remotely close to tracking anything that could be considered a straight line…. and at the portage from Snowbank to Disappointment their frustration was expressed freely in words, motions and ideas of wanting to break up the teams to become more efficient. To quote Emily: “Eric and Nate just paddled across like saying hello to a dear old friend. The rest of us stared on with the jealousy of a thousand suns. This was probably the angriest I was the entire trip because it doesn't make sense when both people are paddling on the right side of the canoe and it continues to go left.” On that first portage it was decided that a paddling class was needed. While the bow persons went back for the rest of the gear, a new class was created and taught for the first time. Strategic Paddling for Highly Frustrated First Timers or SPHFFT for short. It’s a 100-level course and is roughly 20 minutes of class time explaining and demonstrating the different paddle strokes (I only know 2) as well as discussing how the wind and waves affect a canoe and what stoke could be used to counter these forces of nature to keep the canoe tracking in an approximate straight line. The team aspect was also addressed and how you need to work with your canoemate and that it is more efficient to focus on traveling in a straight line albeit going at a slower pace instead of exerting all your power and zigzagging all over the place. This is followed by a whole lot of field work; they say experience is the best teacher!! I am in no way a subject matter expert and definitely not qualified to teach this course but it seemed to help as during the rest of the trip the newbies made huge progress on their paddling skills.
The portage from Snowbank to Disappointment is really nothing to be worried about. Yes, it is long (230ish rods) but it is well traveled, worn down and easy to follow. There is some elevation but nothing crazy and it’s a good first portage for first timers to get a taste of portaging. Our Golden rules for portaging, watch where you step and take your time. Safety is number one and front of mind, a busted ankle makes more work for everybody. That said, we did double portage. One of these years I will single portage, probably when I finally get the courage to go on a solo trip or spend the money to purchase the more expensive lighter gear. With the classroom portion of the class completed, the field work portion began.
Disappointment Lake is a long lake that snakes its way north and east and seems to just keep going. There are different types of lakes when traveling in the BWCA. The wide-open lakes (see Snowbank, Kekekabic, Gabimichigami, etc…) where you can see pretty much uninterrupted from shore to shore. You take a compass bearing or a visual bearing and head out. Then there are lakes with false shorelines or lots of islands. You take a bearing and get there only to find out that you’re not there yet. This was also a good test of how well the SPHFFT class went as the wind was starting to increase and we could see clouds building in the west. After more than a few “false shorelines” we were across the lake and to the portage to Ahsub Lake. The portage to Ahsub Lake is a quick up and over and clocks in at a mere 25 rods and we were across in no time. Ahsub Lake is a smaller lake that looked deep and had some cliffs on the northwest side with a conveniently located campsite at lunch time so we stopped. It was a quick stop, maybe 20-30 minutes as we still had quite a way to go before we got to our destination lake to find campsite for the night. Once we left our lunch spot and hung a left around a point we found ourselves paddling down a channel that lead to the portage to Jitterbug Lake. Ahsub being the first of a number of smaller lakes and we fell into a cycle of paddle, portage, repeat. The portage from Ahsub to Jitterbug is a quick 15 rods with a decent landing on the Ahsub side but a muddy “watch where you step or you might lose a shoe” landing on the Jitterbug side. Jitterbug is a smaller lily pad choked lake that is really very scenic with no campsites and a decent beaver damn as you exit the lake heading towards Adventure Lake. We were across in no time.
The portage to Adventure Lake is 40 rods but pretty easy. We were across Adventure Lake with out any individual adventures although this is when it started to rain. Nothing crazy but we put on our full rain gear, moved our sunglasses to the storage position on top of the head and paddled on. The portage from Adventure Lake to Cattyman Lake was also nothing challenging and is only 10 rods, we didn’t even unload the canoes. Just picked them up and walked them over. This portage does have some rocks to watch out for. We were only on Cattyman for a short while as the next portage to Jordan Lake was right around the corner. The portage to Jordan Lake is a well-maintained trail however the entry into Jordan is steep, rocky and can pose challenges when wet. As it was still raining, we took our time to make sure everyone stayed safe. Being on these smaller lakes and more protected from the wind, it is easy to forget that it is actually windy. Once on Jordan Lake, we had to battle across the main part of the lake before we entered some channels that would bring us to the portage to Ima Lake. The rain stopped as we were heading down the channel towards the portage and as I flipped off my rain jacket hood, I heard a soft “plunk” in the water and hung my head in the realization that my sunglasses were now swimming with the fishes. Lost my sunglasses on the first day, rookie move. This section of our trip was fun and different even though we had a lot of portaging. More portaging means smaller lakes with no campsites which I assumed would give us a greater chance to happen upon a moose which I would like to encounter in the wild. The lakes in this stretch of the trip had more water vegetation (which means less rocks but more mud) and channels through tall grass and smaller creeks to navigate and follow. (I would like to do the Frost River loop at some point in the future).
The portage to Ima is pretty easy and short however there were a lot of larger rocks to dodge. We were over and off onto Ima and back on the bigger lakes where wind becomes more of a challenge. The wind at this point was coming out of the north/northwest which was relatively at our backs and helped us cruise across Ima. However we took a wrong bearing and had to follow the eastern shore north a little ways before we happened upon the portage entrance…. Look for a narrow passage in the cliff. This was the most challenging entry/exit to a portage I can remember. It gets deep pretty quickly and its maybe 10-15 feet wide (and that’s being generous), definitely one at a time on this portage. Lots of rocks to navigate not only in the canoe but also as you step out of your canoe to start the portage. Once on the portage you immediately start climbing up a set rock “stairs” which at the time were pretty slick due to the constant precipitation from the last hour or so. Not sure how many of these “stairs” you go up but once through that part, the portage turned to a dirt path and while there was some elevation change, it wasn’t that bad. The portage is about 50 rods or so. By this time, we were all getting a little tired and looking forward to a change of clothes and a warm meal at a campsite. But back to the task at hand, at least it stopped raining. From here you take off on a little river/stream (to be honest I don’t know the difference) that had a couple of portages but nothing crazy so we made good time and spilled out into Thomas Pond looking forward to the final leg of the day’s journey. Thomas pond is just that, a pond and Zach and Emily were across and unloading before the last of our group got loaded up and pushed off to cross. So we sent them ahead to find and secure the first and closest campsite they could find. Home for the night and we got there before the storms showed up! We were all thankful and ready to be done for the day. We pulled up to the campsite about 4:00pm and unloaded all our gear and got camp set up remembering to get everything situated before the light was turned off. Everyone was tired and hungry but in good spirits.
The campsite, # 1680: The campsite is located on the south side of a small peninsula just south of the portage. This is nice because you really don’t see a lot of canoe traffic to the north. The landing is not too bad although there is a short relatively steep section to get up to the main part of the campsite but its easy to navigate. The fire grate is in the open and in a pretty flat area with the usual rocks and roots to navigate. The tent spots are on the western edge of the campsite however not a lot of places to hang hammocks. We had to get a little creative to find a bear tree but located some taller trees at the end of the peninsula almost to the end of the point. Not the best situation but we made it work with a 2-rope system. One rope to pull the food sacks up and one rope to pull the food sacks away from the tree. We used this configuration most of the trip.
With everyone’s sleeping arraignments situated we started making dinner which ended up being the show before the show. While Emily was making her dinner, she managed to knock over her stove which created a decent fireball (think size of a small basketball) that rose into the sky. It was comical and we all had a good laugh. After we finished dinner, we hung the bear bags and settled in to watch the much-anticipated storms roll in around 7pm. I have experienced downpours in the BWCA before, but this was the first time I experienced a lightening a storm of that magnitude. Thankfully it was not windy, just monsoon like rain and lots of cloud to ground (or vice versa) lightening which was a little unsettling. The fact that we used the large white pine in the middle of camp to tie off the main tarp didn’t make things any more settled. The storms seemed to roll through and then backtrack and roll through again, it rained from 7pm until sometime after midnight.
Side note: I don’t usually pitch gear but Emily brought a gravity water filter and I have to say it was pretty slick! Previously we were using an MSR pump water filter (when close to shore, yes we are dippers) and the gravity filter is WAY easier. Work smarter not harder!!
Lakes traveled: Snowbank, Disappointment, Ahsub, Jitterbug, Adventure, Cattyman, Jordan, Ima, Hatchet, Thomas Distance traveled: 13.5 miles
We survived the night…... what a night. I think the storms stopped about 2am or somewhere around there which means nobody got a lot of sleep. The morning was still cloudy with a light mist being blown around by the moderate wind that followed the storms. Everything was soaked……... but when surrounded by water and to fully acclimate to the BWCA one must become the water. Mission accomplished. We got a slower start and packed up and shoved off around 9am in the gray, wind and mist that was to be our companion for the remainder of the morning. First lake to conquer was Thomas. We headed east and north and paddled through the channel to the next lake, Fraser Lake.
We followed the north shore of Fraser to stay out of the wind and noticed the clouds starting to breakup exposing glimpses of the sun. The sun picked up our spirits and made it to the next portage around 10:30am. The next couple of portages to Gerund Lake and Ahmakose Lake weren’t bad as they were short and the lakes were small so we made quick work and were on to the portage to Winisi Lake in no time. This is where we noticed the portages starting to get tougher. More elevation changes in combination with length and rocks. I couldn’t help but remember a previous trip with some portages I believe along the same parallel but a farther east that were also very challenging and really put you through your paces (heading north, Agamok Lake to Mueller Lake to Ogishkemunice Lake). I would be curious if anyone else has noticed this or am I overthinking things??
Back to the story, the first part of Wisini heading north was pretty protected from the wind but once we came out of that bay, we were head on into the wind and progress became a lot more challenging. One thing that took our mind off the wind is the spectacular campsite on top of the cliff! I am not sure how you get up there but it looked like a site with great views, although I am sure there is a lot of traffic through there. We called it Billy Goat Bluff. Once across Winisi we stopped for lunch on the portage to Strup Lake and stripped our rain gear off as the sun was out in force and we were loving it! Drying out is always a good feeling! We stopped for about 30 mins and Nate and Gerardo broke out the fishing gear caught some fish although nothing of size.
Our goal was to get to South Arm of Knife and find a campsite around Thunder Point. Some of you are probably laughing at this. Who thinks they can find a campsite around Thunder Point the first week of August during the busiest time in the BWCA? Did I mention this was our first time on the Ely side? But first, across Strup Lake and onto the next challenging portage to Kekekabic Lake only to be greeted by a lake whipped into whitecaps by the wind. Bring it on!! This was the only time I was concerned for the newbies. Thankfully the wind was blowing from the north and we needed to go north. Nate and I experienced Lake Saganaga in all its fury and this wasn’t as bad as that so we knew what to expect and that we could make it. Keep the bow into the waves and just power through, use the islands as wind breaks and before you know it your across or at least far enough across where the wind doesn’t affect the waves as much. So that’s what we did. As we progressed you could notice the waves start to dwindle as you got closer to the protected shore. At the portage it was basically calm. By this point in the trip Zach and Emily had a pretty good rhythm and were the first group to set off so we let them pick the line. Although we did not follow their line, they gave us a good reference point to where the portage was since they got there first. While heading north we ducked behind the big island and took a rest before heading out to the big open part which worked out pretty well. After a good paddle we were on to the next challenging portage and Pickle Lake.
We were across the next three lakes Pickle, Spoon and Bonnie pretty quickly as this is burn area and not really a lot to see so we just motored. We were all starting to get tired as it was getting late in the day and we had been fighting the wind for hours now. We wanted to get a site on northern side of the island just around the corner or at least in the vicinity of Thunder Point. This was not to be. As soon as we set off on South Arm of Knife we started seeing people…. And not just a canoe or two…… all heading east; it seemed like we were the only ones heading west. Everyone we talked to said all the campsites were taken from that point heading east until we hit the Big Knife Portage (at least I assumed this was the portage everyone referenced since no names were used). Was this the first time we would be traveling at night in the BWCA? I cannot see this being a good thing since all the navigating we have done pretty much involves following shore landmarks that you can see from a distance. We did have a compass (always bring a compass) but it’s been a while and I am probably pretty rusty with this skill. Something to brush up on before the next trip….
So we stopped and formed a 3 canoe barge and studied the map to formulate a plan. I took the mindset I use while hunting….. where are people not willing/wanting to go, can we get there and how long will it take. I study these maps pretty intensely before we go and I remembered a little dead-end lake off the beaten path that supposedly had 2 campsites on it. Well…... it was worth a look. If either of those campsites were not available then we would be traveling in the dark. We made a beeline for the dead-end lake following the southern shore of Knife Lake. This probably added 5 to 6 unplanned miles to our day but we all kept a positive attitude and were hopeful that one of these sites would be available. We made it to the portage to Portage Lake around 6:30pm and at this point we were all tired and hungry. What we didn’t want to happen is have everyone traverse the portage only to find both campsites occupied and then have to turnaround backtrack and cover the same piece of ground for nothing. So Nate and I went over with just the canoe and paddles while everyone else stayed on the portage to make dinner and eat.
Nate and I made quick work of the portage, you can really travel quickly if you don’t have any packs to go back for! We put in on the dead-end lake and started looking for either campsite with our fingers crossed that one would be open. The map said there were two campsites along the northern shore on that particular lake. I have no idea where the first campsite is because we padded almost the entire length of the north shore and didn’t see a trail or anything until the last little bit where the map marked the second campsite. Which was OPEN!!! We staked our claim and went back for the others. Nate and I grabbed our packs and left everyone else to catch up after giving them instructions on what to look for and where to go.
The campsite # 1244. The landing for this campsite is pretty challenging. Its fairly deep (over my knee) and narrow with mud and some downed timber to navigate. The fire grate is in an open area that has some larger rocks and had plenty of options to tie off a tarp for shelter if the need arose. The area is not very level but we managed to find enough areas to get the tents set up. This was another site where I was happy to have a hammock, no level ground needed. This campsite had not been used in a long while and we know this because the latrine was clean. I mean fresh clean; we were the first ones to leave our marks. :) The one challenge to this site was finding a good bear hang tree. We used the two-rope system again and got the food bags hung safely.
This lake was out of the way even by BWCA standards and you felt the remoteness…... nobody traveling through the lake or staying on the lake. It was actually pretty cool. And to think that we were less than a half mile off the main lakes but we felt like we were the only people alive! This site really wasn’t that bad, at least not to a bunch of weary travelers excited to not have to go any farther that day. We got set up and settled in by the fire and dried out some shoes and some of us fished. It was here that the first eater sized fish was caught, cleaned and fried. There is nothing like fresh fish, if you’re into that sort of thing.
As the evening wore on the conversation turned to what we wanted to do the rest of the trip since we covered so many miles that day. The original plan was to have a rest day and check out Thunder Point but we were well passed that and nobody had any desire to go back that way. So it was decided to do a couple of short travel days and exit the BWCA early on our final day so we could make it all the way home that same day. With the light fading and everyone exhausted we turned in for the night. It has been a long time since I slept that good.
Lakes traveled: Thomas, Fraser, Gerund, Ahmakose, Wisini, Strup, Kekekabic, Pickle, Spoon, Bonnie, South Arm of Knife, Big Knife, Portage Distance traveled: 16.5 miles
We took our time today since we weren’t going as far so we fished along the way. We basically followed the US Canadian border the whole time with several smaller portages around smaller waterfalls and rapids, it was a beautiful day! Over the Big Knife Portage onto the Knife River also known as Seed Lake (no idea why, it’s just what the map says) to Melon Lake and then to Carp Lake. It was on one of these smaller portages that we found a pack that someone had left behind. We had a discussion on what to do, take it with us or leave it. We decided to leave it in case the person(s) who left it came back for it as we didn't know which direction the group was traveling. I am glad we did because we ran into the group a short while later that was coming back for it. Turns out they had to exit quickly because a member of their group broke their leg and they had taken him back out to civilization for treatment and were on there way back to continue and finish their trip, hopefully with no more incidents. It was also on one of these smaller portages where Sara would portage her first canoe. After a quick lesson she flipped the canoe onto her shoulders with a little help and off she went, no issues although she said she didn’t have to do it again unless she had to. Before to long we were on the portage from Carp Lake to Birch Lake. While on the portage we ran into another group that told us of the waterfall that needs to be looked at so we took the detour and did some sightseeing. Just a word of caution, just off the trail we took to see the waterfall, up in a tree was a pretty decent sized beehive (or hornet or something that stings, I didn’t stick around to find out) so watch out for that.
Back on the water we paddled down Birch Lake which actually turns out to be a really long lake. After we rounded the corner out of the area immediately after the portage we decided to start looking for a campsite as we noticed the canoe traffic starting to pick up again. We passed a couple of occupied sites and grabbed the first available one we happened upon.
The campsite # 1279. This site has a nice landing in a little bay (if you could even call it that) however it did have a slanted rock surface that was a little slippery which made things challenging. Once up in the site it sprawls out in all directions with tent pads spaced out decently including one just off the trail that leads west off the back off the site. It was like a little bedroom surrounded on the sides and top by forest with a window to the lake. There is an absolute awesome bear hang tree back behind the site (south) a little way, best bear hang tree I have ever encountered. It was a HUGE pine on a slope that had one branch parallel to the ground. If you stood up on the hill and threw your rope over said branch it was perfect! Our food was a good 20 feet off the ground but still at least 10 feet down from the branch and a good 20 feet off the tree!
Since we were arrived so early there was plenty of time to explore, fish and just hang out. I really cherish these times. The conversation is easy and all manner of topics are discussed, heavy, light, serious, crazy, etc… I don’t remember any specific conversations at this campsite but we talked a lot. It makes one realize the distractions from technology in our everyday lives that prevent us connecting with each other on a more personal level. I always feel so refreshed after these trips. Throughout the afternoon some fish were caught and lures were lost. We had some rumbles of thunder but fortunately no storms materialized. We also had a really large rabbit frequent the area, scared several of as we tromped off to the latrine. The evening progressed, we had a fire and off to bed looking forward to another shorter day.
Lakes traveled: Big Knife, Knife River/Seed Lake, Melon, Carp, Birch Distance traveled: 6.5 miles
We were up around our usual time and started to break down camp to get a start on the day. I really enjoyed this site! Today’s goal was to get a site close to our exit point of Latourells. So we left around our usual time of 8:30am and went straight down Birch Lake to the portage to Sucker Lake. This was to be our last portage on the trip! Sometime over the last couple of days, I believe it was the night we stayed on Portage Lake, the wind switched from the north to west south west. And once again we were back to fighting the wind. As we got through the portage and caught a glimpse of Sucker Lake, white caps once again greeted us. Oh well, nothing we haven’t already done before. Bow into the waves and go!! It really wasn’t too bad as we battled across the open water towards the sheltered water of the opposite shore. There is really not much to tell about today’s travel as it was all paddling however we did pass some pretty nice campsites, at least they looked nice. But we wanted to get closer to make our final day easier. We ended up paddling through Sucker and onto Newfound Lake and took one of the campsites in the bay on the northern side of the lake. We arrived again before noon. I am starting to like these shorter days!!!
The campsite # 1311. This site has probably one of the easiest landings of any campsite in the BWCA. Shallow and an easy transition onto land. The site itself is on a slight incline with several flat tent pads and plenty of trees for hammocks. Once you get off the back of the site the landscape climbs at a pretty good clip with plenty of options for bear hang trees. The latrine was a way off up the hill in a little opening with lots of wildflowers that was pretty peaceful and warm if you visited during the time of day when the sun warmed the seat for you.
Once camp was set up, we had lunch and as the food was being pulled out Sara innocently asked if anyone wanted a cliff bar. What ensued was a good laugh as we estimated that Sara and Gerardo brought enough food for another 3-4 days and were carrying around all that extra weight. So we discussed how to meal plan for a wilderness trip so next time we would be lighter and more efficient. Although we were all thankful for the 3-ply toilet paper that Sara brought with and shared generously. That is a luxury item that may take up some space but is light and totally worth it! You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Every experience in life teaches us something to make us better educated on that topic.
We were also planning to have a fish fry later that evening so we were planning a concentrated effort at catching some fish. The only problem is all our leeches were gone at this point in the trip and I never really have had much success with artificial lures, in the BWCA or anywhere really. I believe we started fishing around 4:30pm, Zach and I were in one canoe and Nate and Gerardo were in the other. We fished for about 2 hrs and caught a bunch of smaller yet keeper sized smallmouth and northerns but with no way to communicate we ended up releasing all the fish because we didn’t think we had enough for a fish fry. Nate also lost a large Smallmouth at the canoe. Well…. It turned out that if everyone kept their keepers we would have had enough. Back to camp for more freeze-dried food and a campfire before turning in for the night.
Lakes: Birch, Sucker, Newfound Distance traveled: 5 miles
Lakes: Newfound, Moose Distance traveled: 2 miles
Conclusion With the conclusion of this trip, Nate and I surpassed 100 miles of canoe travel in the BWCA in 3 yrs. Thinking back to our first trip in 2019 that started out as a pipe dream has morphed into an annual event while introducing multiple first timers along the way. Every single trip has been a unique and challenging experience in and of itself. Each trip has presented unique challenges to solve and overcome allowing personal growth to become a better human. It doesn’t matter how far you go, where you go or who you go with. There is something really special about the true wilderness. In the wilderness, the quiet, the lack of distractions, the landscape with its raw beauty and subtleties that require your attention lest a lesson be learned through pain and suffering. These trips always leave me with a sense of accomplishment as well as a need for more. However, I think the days of pushing to do miles are behind me. The downside is I will need to take longer trips to get deeper into the BWCA where I enjoy the solitude and comradery experienced with family and friends. Next year’s trip will be shorter to allow more time for fishing! But that’s also what I said last year……