BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 23 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1201 feet
South Kawishiwi River - 32
Celebrating Dad's 60th in the BWCA
June 24, 2010
South Kawishiwi River
Snake River (84)
Number of Days:
Finally, it was time for our trip. We headed out from our home in Grand Haven, Michigan, around midnight on a Thursday evening in late June and drove south along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, through Chicago (not much traffic at 3 a.m.), and then up through Illinois, Wisconsin, and eventually, arrived in Ely, Minnesota.
We took the less direct but more scenic route out of Duluth, following 61 up to Two Harbors, then north to Ely. At one point, we pulled off the road in a small clearing to switch drivers, and were instantly swarmed by thousands of deer flies! We rushed back into the car, hoping that this wouldn't be a sign of things to come the rest of the trip.
We arrived in Ely, checked in at Piragis Outfitters, had dinner at the place that used to be Cranberries — a microbrewery who's only beer they had on tap was their version of Budweiser. Seriously?
We stopped at a few other local establishments, shot some pool, did some window shopping, then headed back to the Canoe On Inn to re-organize our gear one more time and get ready for bed.
We made a quick stop at The Great Outdoors for leaches and some frozen ciscoes, which we were convinced would be our secret weapon to endless monster northerns. Turns out we could have done without the ciscoes … we didn't catch a fish on them, and all they did was stink up the softsided cooler we kept them in. Oh well.
We met our outfitter shortly after 6 for the van ride out to our entry point No. 32 on the South Kawishiwi River. Since our route for the trip wasn't overly rigorous, we had chosen to bring along a few more creature comforts and planned on double-portaging. We each had a large backpack, then a food pack and another small backpack with all our kitchen gear, not to mention 3 fishing rods each, leaches, paddles, etc.
That all changed when our outfitter threw the canoe on his shoulders and headed off down the well-worn, muddy trail. My dad and I looked at each other, shrugged as if to say, "Time to man up," and I threw my pack over my shoulders, then pulled the food pack onto my front, grabbed whatever loose gear was lying around and headed off down the 147-rod portage. Fortunately, this isn't a bad walk, and it was early enough (around 7 a.m.) that it wasn't too hot or buggy.
We broke free from the canopy of forest and were greeted by one of those sights that will linger in our minds forever — the peaceful, glassy South Kawishiwi river, flanked by slate black rocks and stunning evergreens as far as the eye can see.
Sweaty and out of breath from the loaded-down hike, we took a moment to enjoy the view. My dad, however, was of the impression that time was of the essence, so we packed up, lashed everything down and climbed in our Wenonah Champlain canoe. This was the moment of truth.
You see, the last time my dad and I were in a canoe together, we lasted about 3 seconds before we tipped over. Granted, this was one of those inherently unstable little silver bullets that you get from a rental company, on a fast little river in northern Michigan, with my two kids crowded in the center. Now I've done plenty of canoeing, and never had an issue, so I blame my dad, who's not know for his grace of movement. He doesn't settle into a seat, for example. He plops down. You know what I mean.
We talked several times about getting out and practicing our canoeing prowess over the weeks leading up to the trip, but never managed to find time.
So here we are, alone in the wild, with a 5-day trip ahead of us, and we're both a bit apprehensive about how this is going to go. Admittedly, the first few moments were a bit disconcerting as the canoe wobbled back and forth threateningly, but after a few moments, we got our balance figured out, and we were off, with me in the stern and my dad wedged into the bow.
Our plan was to head up the South Kawishiwi River for a few miles, portage into Little Gabbro, and find a campsite on Gabbro Lake, where we would base camp for a few days. The first leg of the journey was fantastic as we found our rhythm and had the big canoe slicing through the calm water with ease.
We couldn't help but notice, however, that every campsite we passed showed signs of occupancy: a canoe by shore, a tarp strung up between trees, or a wisp of smoke circling skyward.
We made it to the first portage, which is basically a little carry-over around a set of rapids on the South Kawishiwi.
We couldn't resist breaking out a rod, and it took only 2-3 casts to land the first fish of the trip, a small pike that was fooled by a jighead and a white twister tail dragged through the fast water.
Two more smallmouth fell to our offerings before the rain, which had begun to drizzle about an hour earlier, began to come down in earnest. During this short stint, my dad got his first taste of the treacherous footing in the BWCA. Trying to traverse a wet, rocky stretch, he slipped and bashed his shin. It served as a wake-up call, and we both made sure to watch our footing much more carefully in the future.
We followed the South Kawishiwi as it turned back to the south, then and there found the 122-rod portage into Little Gabbro, and on our first trip across, we met another guy on a solo trip. He told us he was paying the price for making the last-minute journey on his own, especially considering he was using a heavy home-made canoe. I volunteered to carry it for him, so after dropping our canoe on the shores of Little Gabbro, I hoisted his canoe on my shoulders. Ugh. After carrying our ultralight kevlar canoe, this thing was a beast. It didn't help that the yolk was positioned too far back, making it much more difficult to carry.
In addition, we came across a fresh pile of stinking crap (the human variety, judging by the fact that it was mixed with toilet paper) right along the portage. Lovely.
We dropped off his canoe, grabbed the remainder of our gear and completed the portage, then headed through Little Gabbro. It's a cool little lake, but we didn't spend much time exploring it, choosing intend to hurry toward our final destination in Gabbro Lake. We noticed two empty campsites — the first empty sites we'd seen — on our way through the narrows between the two lakes. Just as we got out into the main body of Gabbro Lake, we saw another canoe coming our way. We greeted the dad and son, who told us that they had come through Bald Eagle and Gabbro lakes, and that every site in both lakes was full. It was getting close to 2 p.m. and raining harder by the minute, so we did a quick 180 and headed back to one of the open sites.
We grabbed the site farthest to the west, which sits on a raised rocky shelf right on the stretch of fast water between Gabbro and Little Gabbro.
It turned out to be a great site — beautiful scenery from a nice seating area around the fire grate; plenty of fire wood; and some decent fishing from shore. We set up our tarp first, and enjoyed our first reprieve from the rain in several hours. The rain soon stopped, and we set up our tent and got a fire going. We caught a few smallmouth bass floating leaches under slip bobbers in the current, but never hit any walleye from this site.
Dinner for the evening was steaks, potatoes and onions, all cooked over the fire, and it was amazing. We enjoyed cigars and a beverage (something containing Jack Daniels, if I recall correctly) and watched as a huge beaver dragged branches back and forth across the channel. We also saw deer and bald eagles.
Then, we figured out what that buzzing sound we'd heard in the woods. The sun had just set when we were assaulted by mosquitoes. We quickly hoisted the food bag up off the ground and dove for cover in our tent.
My dad was asleep in 20 seconds, while I laid awake, listening to the buzz of mosquitoes and the other night sounds for a while before drifting off to sleep.
Our plan for the day is to fish our way through Gabbro Lake, then take the rugged portage to Turtle Lake in pursuit of some big pike. We were up by 7:30, and after a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee/hot cocoa, we were off.
We spent some time fishing around the islands in Gabbro, but didn't have much luck. We finally started catching some fish as we approached the fast water just below the small set of rapids between Bald Eagle and Gabbro lakes. We anchored in the current and dropped leaches on hooks with a small splitshot attached 3-4 feet up the line from the hook.
We landed a couple really nice smallies in the 17-18 inch range, then caught a nice walleye, which we put on the stringer for dinner.
We weren't sure the best way to make it around the rapids. There was a visible trail on the right side of the small waterfall, but it looked treacherous to climb over, so instead, we went to the left and simply lifted the canoe up and over the rocky stretch and back into the water.
We paddled like mad to avoid getting sucked back down into the rapids, then began scraping bottom on the rocks that hid submerged just under the surface in the narrow stretch of water leading toward Bald Eagle. As we rounded the point and got our first look at Bald Eagle Lake, we were glad we didn't have to paddle across it as the wind was beginning to pick up and it didn't look like a fun day to spend on that big lake. Instead, we headed north and tackled the portage into Turtle.
This portage certainly wasn't easy, but it wasn't too bad, either. There were a few tricky spots, with a lot of rocks in the trail and a lot of climbing, but we didn't have our packs, just the canoe and our fishing gear, which made it easier to handle.
Turtle Lake is shallow and muddy and, in spots, choked with lilly pads. We made our way to the northeast corner of the lake, where we'd read (on these forums) that others had caught plenty of pike.
The wind picked up as we paddled, and by the time we reached the small islands that were our destination, our only choice was to slip in the leeward side of the islands to fish. The wind finally let up a bit, and I caught two nice pike in the 30-inch range on Mepps spinners.
We were eager to keep exploring the lake, and to catch some more pike, but the sky started to get dark (it was still early afternoon) and the wind was really whipping. It looked like a storm could be headed our way, and with a fair bit of paddling to get back to our campsite, we reluctantly stowed our fishing rods and headed for home.
Turtle Lake was really churned up on our way back toward the portage, and the portage wasn't nearly as much fun the second time. Bald Eagle Lake was also rolling pretty good, so we hurried back into Gabbro Lake. We settled back into the fast water where we had caught a few fish earlier in the day (this area was mostly protected by the wind) and again caught a few bass and walleyes.
As we headed back into the main body of Gabbro Lake, we noticed the first campsite, situated on an island at the far southeast end of Gabbro Lake, was open. We decided that the next morning, we'd get up early and come down and claim this campsite if it was still available. We made it back to our campsite and filleted the walleye we had caught earlier in the day, along with some Zatarain's dirty rice. We decided, after making the entire box, that we should have only made half, but we sucked it up and ate it all.
On a strange note, we noticed that somebody had moved some things around at our camp. We wondered if it was maybe an animal, but then we found this piece of broken glass that had been placed under some of our gear. Huh.
The wind settled down after howling for most of the day, and we enjoyed another peaceful evening around the fire.
We woke up at 6 a.m. (ugh) my dad is the ultimate morning person, I'm not. His argument — hey, it's 7 a.m. back home. We broke camp quickly, then the rain started. We headed out and found my "lucky" Mepps spinner, which I had snagged on a rock the night before, then fished our way through Gabbro. The island campsite we had seen earlier was still open, so we grabbed it. We set up the tarp and tent in a sprinkle, then it rained harder and harder for the next half an hour. So we went fishing.
We headed back to the fast water where we had caught some fish the day before, but for some reason, couldn't get the canoe to sit right in the water. Every time we dropped our anchor, we'd spin backward. We even switched spots in the canoe, but to no avail. So instead, we beached the canoe and sat on a rocky outcropping and tossed our leaches into the moving water. This netted us a few walleyes.
It was around noon and we had just loaded up a bunch of dead wood in our canoe, since there wasn't much to be found around our campsite. We decided to take a few more casts, and I'm glad we did.
The current was sweeping my line past the point where we were sitting when it suddenly stopped. I reeled up the slack and set the hook, and was rewarded by a jarring head-shake by something big on the other end.
I fought the fish for a few moments, then it decided to take matters into its own hands. It peeled almost all the line off my spinning reel before I could turn it around. I was sure I had hooked into a big pike, which was one of my goals for the trip. After several more exhilarating minutes, I saw the splitshot emerge from the stained water. Moments later, I saw the fish, and it wasn't a pike, but a huge walleye! We had a net along, so I called frantically for my dad, and he came over and slipped the net under the huge fish and hauled it up onto the rocks. I couldn't even wrap my hand around the back of its head, it was so thick, so instead I slipped a finger in its gill and lifted it out of the net. We measured it at 29 inches — my second-longest walleye ever and certainly the thickest. This thing was battered and scarred all over its head. We got one quick picture, but before we could get another it started thrashing around, so I quickly got it back in the water. It took a few minutes, but the majestic fish eventually freshened up and slipped away into the depths.
After all that excitement, we headed back to camp and enjoyed a lunch of fried walleye and black beans and rice (only half the box this time). The wind was howling, so after lunch, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon reading, napping, and playing rummy.
We fished off the back side of the island our camp was situated on and had one big pike come up and slam my Yo-Zuri right by shore, but I wasn't able to hook into it.
For dinner, we made BWCA pizzas, which were a fantastic change of pace.
As it began to get dark and the wind continued to howl, we heard the banging of paddles on canoes and headed down to the water to see a group of 8 coming along the shoreline toward us. This was a tired group of dads and kids that had gotten a late start to the day and were looking desperately for a campsite. We didn't have much help to offer them, since we hadn't been far enough that day to check any other sites. They pushed on, and soon after, we got back in our canoe and did some exploring and fishing before heading back to camp for a beautiful campfire and cigars before heading to bed.
It rained hard overnight, and we were up at 6 a.m. again (ugh) and packed up a soggy camp. Our goal for the day was to make our way across Bald Eagle and to find a campsite hopefully on the southeast end of the lake, so we could spend the day fishing in that area, which we knew was a great spot for pike and smallmouth bass. We may have gotten too early a start, because every site we passed was still occupied; we didn't give people enough time to pack up and move on for the day. On a positive note, we saw the four canoes from the group that passes us the night before pulled up on shore at the very first campsite we came to.
We said a little prayer as we approached the last campsite on the south end of the Bald Eagle Lake, and were thrilled to find it open. Unfortunately, this site really sucked. Still, God had provided, so who were we to complain? We hung our food bag, our tarp and pitched our tent, then headed out fishing. The wind was howling (notice a trend here?) so we went into the Isabella River and tossed buzz baits and Senkos up to the weedline.
I nailed several pike this way, but my dad, who for no particular reason hadn't had much luck fishing the entire trip, was getting skunked. All he had talked about leading up to the trip was catching a big pike, and here we were, in a great spot to nail some nice fish, and he was getting frustrated.
We eventually came to the campsite that sits along the river, and this site was open. We agonized over whether to go back, grab our gear, and come back and take this site instead, but since we had already put up the tent, tarp and food bag, we decided not to.
Instead, we fished on, catching a few more pike, before heading back toward out campsite to relax for a bit and get out of the wind. If we thought the wind was blowing hard in the river, it was nothing once we got back out onto Bald Eagle. The waves were easily 2 feet high, so we paddled for all we were worth, keeping the bow pointed into the waves until we got even with our campsite, then making a mad dash for shore.
We hadn't had the foresight to keep any of the pike we had caught early, and fishing chances from shore looked bleak, but I tied on a Senko (basically a straight rubber worm), rigged it weedless, and threw it out and ripped it across the surface of the grassy weeds that lined the shoreline. After a few casts, a small pike porpoised out of the water behind the bait. I threw it back out, and the pike hit again. This time, I hooked him, and dragged him through the weeds to shore. We put him on a stringer for dinner.
Here's a picture of my tackle case. Since I love seeing what everyone else brings, I thought I'd post a picture of mine.
For lunch, we tried something new — bannock, which I had made up ahead of time. I simply added some water and mixed it up, then fried it over the camp stove. I livened it up with dried cherries, raisins, cinnamon and other spices, and it was actually pretty good, but filling. Ugh. It was like a rock settled into my gut. With the wind still howling, we played cards, drank up the rest of our Jack Daniels, and basically just relaxed and enjoyed the day, albeit from a less-than-ideal campsite. This site was stuck back in the woods, so we had no view. There was no rock table at all, so we tried to build one, with little success.
Eventually, we fried up the pike we had caught earlier, along with some broccoli mac and cheese.
We chased it with tang and rum, played one more game of rummy, ate gummy bears and watched the stars come out, then retreated into our tent for our final night in Canoe Country.
We woke up to — surprise — more wind. We took our time, since we didn't have far to go to reach our take-out spot on the Snake River. We figured it would take us maybe 2-3 hours to get there, so we ate a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and coffee/hot cocoa, then packed up. We secured everything but our fishing poles into the canoe and shoved off into the rolling waves of Bald Eagle Lake.
Once back into the relative shelter of the Little Isabelle River, we began fishing again. I gave my dad my favorite black buzz bait with a silver blade, and it immediately began paying dividends. He caught a tiny pike, then a little nicer one. He even caught a walleye (that one must have come on something else, I can't imagine catching one on a buzz bait).
Then, as his bait was clattering across the surface of the river, the water exploded as if someone had tossed an anchor into the water. He set the hook and held on as a huge northern pike began peeling off drag. Fortunately, he was using a 7-foot medium-heavy casting rod with heavy line, so he had plenty of backbone to fight the big fish.
The pike quickly tired, and he pulled it up alongside the canoe. There was no way this monster was fitting in the net, and there was no solid shoreline anywhere close, so my dad decided to grab the pike by the back of the head. He had just started lifting it out of the water when the fish thrashed, and in a blink of an eye, it took off, snapping his line.
He yelled out a curse, disappointed that we didn't have a chance to get the giant pike into the boat for a quick measurement and a photo, but there's no doubt in either of our minds that this big boy was easily 40 inches long and probably closer to 45 inches.
We made a few more casts, but after seeing that hulking pike swim away, our hearts just weren't in it, so we began paddling in earnest for our take-out spot.
The Snake River is hardly a river at all, more like a small stream. At first, it was easy enough to follow as it snaked through the tall grass. Eventually we came to a spot where the river almost ended and we had to guess which way to go. We guessed right and emerged back onto the river, but from here on our, it got narrower and narrower.
We made the first portage, which was marked incorrectly on our maps. Luckily, we had learned not to take the first portage on the right side of the river, but instead to go maybe 100 yards farther, to the actually portage on the left. This was the first of 3-4 short portages. They were easy to follow, but too long to do without emptying the canoe, so they took us quite a bit of time and work.
The final stretch of river reminded us more of a jungle river, it was so narrow, with branches reaching out over the river, brushing up against both shoulders as we eased our way through.
We finally came around a turn and saw a clearing and a man standing there. He was wearing brown, and my first thought was that he was a ranger, but it turned out he was our outfitter, who decided he'd rather chill out in the woods than sit around the store for the day.
We knew the carry out was a long one, so our outfitter volunteered to carry my pack and carry a few paddles as well. I took another pack and shouldered the canoe, while my dad shrugged on is pack and took our fishing rods and the rest of the loose gear.
The portage was long but mostly flat. I didn't get a chance to see much of it, since I had a canoe over my head.
We got back to the van, and our outfitter pulled out a cooler containing two candy bars and two lukewarm cans — a Diet Coke and an iced tea. Now I don't really like iced tea, but my dad had been going through some pretty serious withdrawals from a lack of Diet Coke, so I let him have it. The tea wasn't all that bad, either, and we both had our cans emptied before our outfitter had the canoe lashed to the top of the van.
The ride back was uneventful, the shower heavenly, and dinner at the Ely Steakhouse (the Bucky Burger chased by a beer) was to die for. We made the obligatory calls to home before grabbing some cold Cokes and heading for home. It was a week we'll both cherish forever.