BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 26 2024
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1392 feet
Farm Lake - 31
Gutting It Out On Gabbro: Taking A Hard Fall On A Fall Trip
September 07, 2019
Number of Days:
After meeting and getting loaded up at my house in St. Cloud, MN we departed for Ely at about 11 AM on a warm, sunny day. After an uneventful trip we arrived at our outfitter's on White Iron Lake by late afternoon. By the time we arrived, we had already made a number of adjustments to the original trip plan, the biggest of which was scrambling to fill out our group after one of our original members left us in the lurch with very little time to find a replacement. As the "elder statesman" of this crew, I had looked forward to traveling with some younger guys to carry a lot of the load including Kirby--a strong-as-an-ox 29 year old, David--a mountaineer who has climbed the highest peaks in the western hemisphere and his friend, a rather fit ex-marine. It was David's (now former?) friend that suddenly decided just a couple of days before our departure that obligations he knew about weeks beforehand were going to keep him home. If I sound a bit annoyed at this it's because we all were since a group of three was going to be just a bit awkward--especially as we had made all of the plans for four guys all along. Enter my 26 year-old son Paul who was available but while he had also been to the BWCA with me before, he's not particularly confident in his abilities, it's not really his thing and he was reluctant to join us. Thankfully, after an anxious day of trying to find somebody (ANYBODY!) he did agree to go and I knew he'd do just fine.
Once checked into our accommodations for the night at the outfitter, we zipped back into Ely for the traditional first-night pizza at Sir G's (always excellent) and to do some exploration of the town. I was grateful for the chance to briefly visit with Bob Olson at C.C.O. and looked forward to maybe doing the same with TGO from this forum when I picked up some live bait. However, I was shocked and saddened to find out that TGO had passed away earlier this summer! I did not know him very well but still enjoyed the playful banter he always had ready for you when you patronized his bait store. May he rest in peace.
Once we had finished up in town, it was back to White Iron Lake to do some final packing and settle in for the night before hitting the water the next morning.
We awoke to a cool, cloudy morning. After a quick breakfast provided by our outfitter, we started the canoeing portion of our trip with a pleasant paddle east from White Iron Lake to the BWCA entry at Farm and then onward to the Kawishiwi River. By the time we reached the first portage we were ready for a change of pace and to work some new muscles. This portage brought us south into Clear Lake which we passed through to a portage that took us again to the river. By now it was time for a lunch stop but our plan to do this soon at an open campsite was thwarted by sites that were already occupied so we continued on.
As one travels south here, there is a small rapids that needs to be negotiated upstream with a fair amount of paddling power. Our first guess at the proper channel was wrong (be sure to take the south channel closest to the island). We got hung up on some rocks before almost getting pinned sideways in the current. Fortunately, we were able to back out to try again on the correct path without taking on any water or having to get out in the current and walk the canoe upstream through treacherous footing. When that obstacle was behind us we were able to continue on to the last campsite before our next portage. The site was open and we took advantage of this to finally have our lunch. Our last portage of the day was a pleasant path that brought us further south into Little Gabbro from where we turned east toward Gabbro.
Once on Gabbro we proceeded to the first campsite that is found just south around a point and that sits on the western shore. This site had a great view east across the main part of the lake. It features a nice landing and a fire grate that is built up on a pile of rocks, kind of like a cooking "alter". This would provide for easy fire tending and food prep without a lot of stooping. When we spotted some tent pads that would work well and the latrine checked out, we pronounced it home for the next day or two. After setting up camp we did discover that the openness of this site to the lake provided for a breezy locale, which with the cool temperatures, chilled us just a bit extra. I was also surprised at the number of still-active mosquitoes given the time of year and the cool temps (about 55 degrees F). These were minor imperfections, though, that were overcome by the general pleasantness of the site including the healthy population of busy and energetic squirrels that we found quite entertaining. Once settled at the site, we did try some shore fishing with no success. In spite of that we still had a great evening just hanging out, feasting on a steak and potato supper and sharing stories around a cozy fire that concluded our first awesome day on the trail.
The next morning greeted us with weather very similar to what was experienced the previous day: cool, overcast and, right away in the morning, a stiff breeze coming off of the lake right into camp. At sunrise, the orange glow through a cloud-break on the eastern horizon hinted at some coming sunshine to at least warm things a bit but that soon disappeared as the sun rose up behind clouds that stayed put most of the day--keeping the view of clear skies tantalizingly off in the distance.
Since we had burned up all of our firewood the previous evening, I decided to hike back into the woods for awhile and look for a new supply. At one point I came into an elevated clearing that was a big rock face covered with moss. As I proceeded to the far edge of this clearing, all at once I felt my foot collapse under me, felt a sharp pain in my knee and I was falling!!!! WHAT???? When things stopped moving I found myself laying at an odd angle with the pull of gravity hanging my head about three feet from the edge of this rock face and my leg thigh-deep in a 6-inch wide crack in the rock. I realized that I had stepped just right (just wrong?) onto this moss-hidden rock fissure and gone down into it. In the process of the fall I had jammed my thumb a bit, my leg was rather scraped up and would later show a nasty bruise and the pain in my knee was significant. As I lay there I at first thought I was in a pretty bad predicament and considered yelling for help, hoping the other guys would hear me. Before doing that I started to slowly move and further assess the situation. I considered an attempt to extricate my leg from the fissure and stand up on my own. Fortunately, a rotten stump within reach was solid enough to give me some leverage to push away from the edge, pull my leg out and successfully stand. While my knee was very sore, I was able to put weight on it and nothing felt broken. Indeed, in review of what had transpired, I felt lucky that I hadn't snapped my leg. I limped back toward camp which was about 200 yards away. When I finally got there, I described to the guys, who were still in their tents, what had happened. The response was, "What's the punchline?" I assured that there was no "punchline" and that my knee was not good. The pain was enough that it was possible we would have to end the trip early. At that moment, however, I sure did not feel like going anywhere. I dosed up on some Ibuprofen and made a point to keep gingerly moving about so the knee would stay loose. The rest of the guys then got up and decided they better start on breakfast since this was now going to be a three-person project instead of a four-person.
After bacon and eggs were consumed, Dave and Kirby became intent on catching the night's supper. The stiff breeze was making for some significant chop so fishing from the canoe looked like it could be a bit bumpy but there were also a few protected bays that looked promising and they set out to give them a try. Paul did not have much interest in fishing so he stayed behind. This was actually kind of nice for me as it gave us a bit of time for some father-son chats and enabled me to have him wait on his slow-moving dad. I did manage to hobble over to a spot near shore that allowed me to try some fishing while seated but the wind blowing in made that less than ideal and unproductive. Dave and Kirby returned in the early afternoon after also having gone fish-less. The guys then set out to gather the firewood I had failed on earlier and came back with plenty so we decided to start the fire early in the day to ward off some of the chill. Tending the fire would also be a good way to fight off boredom since the fish had decided to not cooperate.
By late afternoon the wind had calmed somewhat and the sun was at least trying. With steady pills, my knee was now feeling well enough that I could, with enough effort, get in and out of a canoe. David and I decided to take this opportunity to again try for some fish. We checked out a couple of nearby finger bays and I was able to boat a smallie of about 14"-15". David had a small northern on the line briefly but other than a few more nibbles that was about it. We released the bass and paddled back to camp informing the other guys that we'd be eating our freeze dried food that evening rather than the preferred fish fillets. Actually the beef stew and sweet/sour pork from Mountain House wasn't half bad, though we often joke about hunger being the best sauce and that freeze-dried stuff always tasting better in the woods than it would at home.
Once we were all cleaned up from supper (thanks, guys for again doing my part too!) we spent the rest of the night sharing more stories around a now-crackling fire. Between the drugs and the bourbon in my flask, I was able to mitigate knee soreness enough to enjoy the still evening with everyone else and joined them in admiring the beautiful moon that watched over us as we ended another day of our adventure.
Though my knee did make it "interesting" to get into the tent, out of my dirty clothes and into a sleeping bag, I was able to catch some pretty good Z's after what had been for me a rather trying and exhausting day.
Come morning, the night of in-activity had stiffened my knee to where I could barely move. Getting dressed in a prone position sure wasn't ideal but I made it work. I got out of the tent by rolling out and then pulling myself up on one leg with the help of a nearby tree. The first order of business was to hit the medicine kit and get some ibuprofen working again. I managed to move about slowly with a wilderness-fashioned cane and after about an hour the knee felt amazingly better! Still, it was a day we were going to move and I was not looking forward to limping my way across a portage. If there was a silver lining, the weather had improved with a bit warmer temps, clear skies and light winds. From that standpoint it would not be a bad day for travel.
The menu for breakfast this morning was pancakes. Once that was eaten and dishes were done the guys started packing up most of the gear while I contributed as I could. Once we were ready to push off, Dave helped me into my bow seat in the canoe and we were on our way back to Clear Lake--our goal for the night. Even with me slowing things down we were still able to get on our way about 8:30 AM so we were likely going to get to Clear by early afternoon.
At the first portage, I was assisted out of the canoe and it was decided I would take one trip across while the others would take two (which we had ALL done on the way in). I felt good enough to shoulder a light pack and set off with that and a couple of canoe paddles for walking sticks as I took my time down the trail. With less now in the food pack, we were able to combine some gear, reducing a pack and saving anyone from triple portaging. After an initial rocky/rooty climb, the path became pretty smooth and my first post-injury portage was actually going pretty well. I felt like I was really cruising down the portage while in reality the other guys went across, back and across again in not much more time than it took me to go across just once. This method worked well for the group and we successfully repeated it at the next portage that took us into Clear Lake. Also in our favor was the knowledge of which channel to take this time through the short rapids on the Kawishiwi river and it was now down stream so we cruised right through with no issues. We got to Clear about noon and had our pick of any campsite on the lake. We took the site that is second to the east of the portage that goes north out of Clear Lake as we had heard good things about this site and it did prove to be a good one with lots of picturesque pines, two decent canoe landings, a protected fire grate with a great seating area, nice tent pads and sunning rocks and a latrine that is close by yet still set back enough to maintain privacy and keep odors away from camp.
After camp was set up Kirby and Dave set out after fish again while I sat and sawed the sticks that had been left at camp into shorter pieces for a fire. Paul was pretty bushed so he took an afternoon snooze in the tent. This time Dave and Kirby returned with a nice fish on the stringer--a 22" walleye! Finally, we were eating fish fillets for supper! Kirby does not fish much so actually this was the first walleye he ever caught. Not a bad start at all!
Our pre-trip weather forecast had called for some rain this day and we did indeed note some clouds developing to the east and it started to get quite windy. The prediction was for rain to start about 5 PM and it did begin to sprinkle right on the straight-up at 5!
My knee seemed to have improved throughout the day and by now it was feeling about as good as it had since before I took my tumble so I was feeling brave enough to go out and see if we could supplement the fish already on the stringer. Dave and I donned our rain gear and he guided the canoe to where Kirby had caught the walleye. Right away I had action and was bringing in another walleye but this one was only a puny 6"-8" so it went back to grow some more. That fish ended things for both of us and the rain had intensified, giving us each a bit of a chill so we decided to go back to camp, clean the fish we had and get supper started.
With the weather, there was going to be no fire tonight and all of the cooking/eating/dishes was going to be crowded under a tarp. With the fresh walleye fillets supplemented with some left-over food pack items we still ate pretty well and had a tasty supper. The rain would not let up, however, so after securing what we could under the tarp for the night, we all turned in pretty early. We'd be well rested for the trip out in the morning which would likely be done in wet conditions.
While the rain did continue most of the night it was done by the time we woke up at first light. All of the gear was soaked and it's never fun to pack it up that way but at least we were going to stay dry as long as any further precip. held off until early PM. After quickly downing some oatmeal for breakfast, we got the canoes loaded and were on our way starting with a short paddle to the portage north out of Clear Lake. This morning my knee was not nearly as stiff as it had been and I decided to this time contribute more to getting everything across the portage. The rocks, roots and up/down of this portage reminded me that I was still a long ways from 100% but I did manage to carry at least a light load on each of two trips across.
By the time we climbed into our canoes for the last leg of our route back to White Iron Lake, the water had turned smooth as glass, making for perfect paddling conditions to end the trip. When adding in the foggy conditions that developed, an almost ghostly serenity was created that enveloped us as only the Boundary Waters can do. We were really looking forward to a hot shower at the outfitter and the Bucky Burgers that would be wolfed down in town before hitting the road home. At the same time, however, I think this scene was almost (almost!) making for a siren song in the back of each of our minds inviting us to stay just a little while longer. Just before we pulled in to the outfitter's dock, we even saw an otter pop it's head up out of the water as if it was giving us one last goodbye and wishing us well until we returned for the next BWCA adventure.
POSTSCRIPT: A day after returning home I did get into the doctor to get my knee checked out. The diagnosis was "a subluxated kneecap with damage to patella cartilage" . Basically they are saying the kneecap popped out of, and then back into it's slot, slightly tearing on the cartilage as it did so. It's slowly improving and the expectation is for 100% healing given some time, physical therapy and the wearing of a brace for a month or so.