BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 27 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1201 feet
South Kawishiwi River - 32
Kawishiwi River Triangle
August 27, 2020
South Kawishiwi River
Number of Days:
I wake up early to gray pre-dawn light filtering through my tent. I crawl out of my warm cocoon, excited to be up before the sun. After a short hike to the latrine and back, I climb down a hill to stare hungrily up at the bear bag, which contains both stove and coffee, along with every other morsel of food we carried in. Unfortunately, our attempt at using the “PCT” method has gone a bit awry and the twig that keeps the bag up high has become stuck on the bag. I reluctantly determine this is a two-woman job and I’ll have to wait for Kristin to get up. In the meantime, I grab my book and find an almost armchair-shaped comfy spot in the rock face above the river as the eastern sky slowly turns hot pink. It drizzles on me gently but the pattering sound is pleasant and I am happy in my warm jacket with a good view. [paragraph break] When Kristin gets up, we eat a quick oatmeal breakfast and pack up. The drizzle tapers off quickly and it’s clear we’re in for another day of perfect weather. We’re not super efficient at this part yet, but we’re eager to get going away from the creepy, dreary trees. [paragraph break] It’s a matter of short minutes before we reach the first portage of the day - the longest one yet, at 210 rods. I don’t think Kristin is excited, but she’s a champ and never complains. I hike along guiltily behind her and her heavy load, trying to entertain with stories and songs. [paragraph break] After such a long day yesterday, we give ourselves permission to take it easy today. We linger in every narrow pinch of the river and hug the shore of the bays in wider stretches to study the shoreline and watch for animals. Kristin especially hopes to spot a moose and we both love watching otters play. [paragraph break] We pick a campsite just about 2 miles and three portages away from our first and spend the day exploring an eastward branch of the river toward Farm Lake. At one point, we watch a family of swans for a long time, and we happily discover that two short portages marked on the map are actually easy, if narrow, to paddle through. [paragraph break] As we paddle back to camp near dinner time, racing threatening storm clouds behind us, we encounter a lost-looking couple who call out “have you been here before?” This strikes me as humorously absurd, like what you might say at a fancy restaurant. ‘Have you been here before? How’s the linguini?’ Unsure what they actually want, I call back “how can we help?” while Kristin chimes in more eloquently, informing them that we’re coming from the east. It turns out they’re looking for the portage into Clear Lake, which is on our agenda for the next morning. They say they thought they found it but it just turned into a bunch of criss-crossing dead ends, and they’re feeling frustrated and a little desperate. With our night of campsite desperation fresh in my mind, I tell them where to find our site and invite them to share if they don’t find their way by nightfall. The man in the back seems eager to accept, but the woman in the front quickly declines. He then asks if we would be willing to land and help look for the portage. Kristin’s face falls and I think she’s inclined to agree, but I jump in and let them know we have “another mission” for the evening. BWCA etiquette is one thing - we need to look out for each other out here, but I feel like they can figure this one out on their own. [paragraph break] This campsite is far better than the last. This one has multiple tent pads and good trees for both hammock and bear bag. In the process of hanging up her hammock, Kristin comes nose-to-nose with some sort of bleached, desiccated crustacean-looking-thing that is firmly affixed to the tree trunk, like an enormous cicada shell. As the sun begins its slow descent, the storm clouds dissolve. Kristin stokes the fire, I pour wine into silicone mugs, and we watch the ‘alpine glow’ light up the tops of the trees across our little bay. Just before the night falls completely, Kristin suggests a sunset paddle. We grab our headlamps, roll up our sleep pants, and zip up our life vests. I feel apprehensive about the timing, but I’m glad Kristin suggested something outside of my comfort zone. [paragraph break] We paddle away from the burbling rapids near camp, through a wide channel and out towards the mouth of the bay. The water is mirror-smooth and birds swoop around us. A fish jumps close ahead, startling us both. Two large island-like boulders mark the entrance into a wider stretch of river and the trees are silhouetted black against the sun and mercurial water. [paragraph break] The moon shines so bright that night we both comment on it in the morning.
Unlike the previous morning, I wake up several times on Saturday and decide to keep dozing. I feel luxurious and vaguely guilty. Eventually, sure that it must be almost noon (in reality it’s closer to 8 AM), I hear Kristin puttering around and the hiss of the camp stove. As we sit and drink our coffee, several fishermen pass by and wave up at us. [paragraph break] This time it’s our turn to look for the portage to Clear Lake, which fortunately gives us no trouble. I’m lucky to travel with such a good navigator! It’s my turn to carry the canoe and it’s another long one: 160 rods. The view at the end is well worth it. I think this is the best one yet! We’re in a wide bay, decorated with lots of big boulder-islands that make me think of Ariel’s iconic perch in The Little Mermaid. There’s a small cliff to the right that we scramble up for an even better look at the gorgeous scenery. This lake is big but shallow and filled with islands. Like rapids, islands are just fun! [paragraph break] We paddle across Clear Lake, hugging the southern shore. We could turn directly south here and portage into Eskwagama Lake, but by crossing the lake now we’ll save ourselves a long portage in the end. The lake is windier than the river has been, and it’s hard to hold the canoe steady while we wait for two young men to unload ahead of us. They chivalrously linger to help us unload, but we’re old hat at this by now and proud of our own competence. [paragraph break] This (100 rod) portage is a little different from the others so far. The ground is boggy, with hummocks of flattened grass that ooze muddy water with every step. We find ourselves surrounded by shrubby vegetation, tall grasses, and thorny raspberry bushes. Halfway in, the path enters dense pine forest with low branches that scrape across the hull of the canoe, a particularly nasty torture for anyone with their head stuck inside it. Lucky for me, that’s Kristin. [paragraph break] We encounter the young men again at the end of this portage and ask them where they plan to camp. It’s still early morning, but we hope to avoid a repeat of the first night by staking an early claim. After this portage, we will come full circle with the bottom of the Kawishiwi River Triangle, so we’re in a good position to make our exit on Sunday. The man with the handlebar mustache pulls his map from a pocket in his lifejacket and shows us where he has circled several campsites upriver. [paragraph break] We are a couple of miles north of the ‘taj mahal’ and it’s not circled on his map, so Kristin and I aim for that one. We’re heading in the same direction as the men and it feels companionable to know it’s our new friends in the boat across the distance. In fact, when we reach the ‘taj mahal’ rapids, we find the men have pulled close to shore and are looking ahead uncertainly, not sure how to pass through. Kristin and I explain our solution from the first day, when we walked the canoe over the shallow channel, but they choose to brave the other side. [paragraph break] Unfortunately, a large group of teens and one small white fluffy dog are setting up camp at the ‘taj mahal’ campsite. As Kristin and I stand ankle deep on the rocks of the shallow channel, we see one girl up above us taking a selfie. Kristin calls up to ask her where they came from, and if they knew of any available campsites but the instagram girl brushes her off. [paragraph break] At this point, our casual search for a campsite turns into an awkward competition with the mustachioed men from the boggy portage. There are two campsites left in this area of the river and the four of us battle the wind to race east and claim a spot. Of course, the first one we pass is occupied by a large orange tent and several hammocks snapping in the wind. We exchange good-natured jibes with the men and Kristin and I gleefully paddle our hardest. [paragraph break] In the end, we are defeated by our own worst ‘Minnesota Nice’ demons, as we round the bend almost simultaneously, with our canoe a hairsbreadth closest to the final campsite, and the men shout to ask us if we want to take it. As if it’s theirs to offer! We offer to race them to it and they say we can have it. Some insanity compels us to decline, but they continue to shout condolence offers like “last chance! Are you sure?” as we paddle away in search of the next option. [paragraph break] Of course, it’s still early in the day and half the fun of paddling is doing so with a purpose and a mission. The mustaches can spend their afternoon fishing. Boring! We’re on the hunt! [paragraph break] Our next option requires a re-trek of the 30 rod up-down hilly portage where we stopped to swim on Day 1. This takes us back to a section of the river where heading south would take us to the “DANGEROUS WATERS.” The map shows a campsite fairly nearby but in the southward direction. [paragraph break] Kristin is focused intensely on the map, watching for this southern campsite and wary of loud rapids to our left, when we feel a bump and hear the dreaded scraaaaaaaape of rock-on-kevlar. The canoe stops moving and no amount of paddling helps dislodge us. We are beached on a huge, sharp rock just inches under the surface of the water. [paragraph break] Kristin sticks her leg over the side and gets her foot on the top of the rock, trying to push us off. The canoe tips alarmingly to the other side. I ask if she can put her weight on the rock, which might be enough to free us, but it’s too sharp for that and a risky maneuver anyway. I suggest that she lean back in the canoe to try to distribute her weight back to the middle, while I paddle - this seems to help a little, but not enough to free us. Again, she reaches out with one foot to try pushing and this time it does the trick. We’re free! But also feeling a little spooked and chastened for our overconfidence. [paragraph break] We round the cove slowly in search of the southern campsite. We hug the shore and scrutinize every break in the trees for a fire grate, trail, or other obvious landmark. As we near the rapids, it seems clear that there isn’t a campsite on this side of them. Perhaps we’re meant to go through them? I haven’t seen the map in a while. In the stern, I try to hold us steady while Kristin takes a closer look at it. With frustration and no little anxiety in her voice, she tells me there is no portage marked here, and suggests that maybe the dot is slightly askew on the map. Maybe the rapids are supposed to be obviously passable and we're just being weenies. It’s very windy and it feels like the current is sucking us in. It’s clear that Kristin’s confidence is faltering after our run-in with the devil rock a few minutes earlier, so I try to stay upbeat and suggest we check out the other side. [paragraph break] We let the wind and water pull us into this sharp-rocked channel, but feeling like we have little control over the boat and high risk, we lose confidence halfway through and Kristin kicks out her leg one more time to steady us against a boulder while I ping-pong our stern between two others with the handle of my paddle. While we’re half-stabilized here, Kristin asks me to take a look at the map and provide a second opinion. [paragraph break] I love looking at the map at the end of the day, but I’m next to useless at orienteering. This time is no exception. I can tell Kristin needs me to be a better teammate, so I kneel down and stretch forward carefully while she hands it back to me. It takes a long moment for my eyes to find where we are now and I read it backwards on the first attempt, thinking we are on the west side of the 30 rod portage instead of the east. When I finally figure it out, I share Kristin’s frustration. There should be a campsite Right. Here. On this side of the rapids! [paragraph break] Kristin wants to search the shore again, but I don’t see how we could have missed it. I argue that we ought to move on. There are two more sites about a mile north of us and we’re burning daylight. [paragraph break] We still have to extricate ourselves from these rapids where we’re precariously stabilized, and now both wind and current are against us. As we push and paddle ferociously backwards, a sharp gust of wind tears my hat off my head and into the water, and threatens to pull my paddle out of my hands as well. Kristin catches the hat and shoves it under her seat. As we backtrack, we keep an eye on the shore, just in case we did miss a clearing in the trees above us before. Later that night, Kristin will remember that this red dot was marked with a big ‘X’ on the map the two men were using. We can only assume that means it has been decommissioned since our map was printed. [paragraph break] As we turn north, the wind eases up a small amount and we continue to hug the shoreline. There’s one big bulbous section of river to cross. It’s still early afternoon, but I hope these campsites are free so we don’t have a repeat of our first desperate night, or a long journey back out on Sunday. [paragraph break] Our luck starts to turn when Kristin spots movement in the water ahead, and we see three little otter faces poke up. The otters look at us for a long moment, vanish, and then continue splashing and playing a few yards farther ahead. We stop paddling just to watch them for many long minutes until they are finally out of sight. [paragraph break] When we reach the north end of this bulb in the river, we find both campsites are free. We select the one at the northern tip of a large, calm cove. After missing the ‘taj mahal,’ passing up the one for mustache boys, and simply not finding the last one, we discover that our luck has led us to the most dreamy possible campsite of all. This one has large clearings covered in soft reddish cedar needles from impossibly tall trees. The fire grate is in a clearing slightly above water level, and there are many intriguing trails leading to a variety of tent pads nearby. One trail leads up a series of small hills to a flat stone terrace high above the water. Here we decide to have a late lunch. We sit and gaze at nature’s beauty for a long time in silence. Over and over, the sun warms us almost to the point of discomfort, then ducks behind a cloud until we feel a chill and crave its warmth again. Kristin says she wouldn’t change a thing about it, except to wish for a comfy chair and a cold beer. Eventually, I pull out my book and Kristin and I take turns dozing and reading chapters out loud. [paragraph break] When the sun-warmed lethargy wears off, it is late afternoon. We set up camp quickly, fight off a gang of shockingly brave and avaricious chipmunks, and haul the canoe back into the water for one more easy evening paddle. Although we must have seen this part of the river on Thursday, it all seems brand new to me. We poke along the shoreline, pausing often in the calm water just to watch and listen. As the sun inches lower, it becomes too painfully bright to look west, so we cling to the eastern shore and soak in the last rays. We pause for a long time listening to something just beyond our vision shaking the trees and tapping rocks or shells. An eagle rides the vents high above. [paragraph break] Eventually it becomes necessary to cross the river to the west, and I shiver as the shadow of the treeline falls over us and the temperature drops perceptibly. The sky turns lighter and the few clouds glow pink and orange. As dusk falls, we land our boat and we each rush off to find warm, dry clothes. Kristin gets a fire going while I filter water and we wait for our dinners to re-hydrate. The moon is almost too bright to see the stars but I can make out a few constellations. There is no shortage of dry cedar wood, and we take turns once again - one of us reading out loud by headlamp while the other pokes at the fire and watches moonlight ripple on the river.
I’m already sad to leave when I wake up. I can tell it’s going to be cold outside of my cozy sleeping bag, so I find my puffy jacket and pull it inside with me to warm it up. My tent is down by the water and Kristin is far away in her hammock “upstairs” so I can’t tell if she is up yet or not. In my puffy coat, wool hat, leggings, and thick socks I am ready to brave the chilly morning, so I climb out to visit the latrine and then let down the bear bag. Kristin is awake in her hammock and emerges when she hears the promising hiss of the camp stove. We make breakfast and sit quietly, looking out from our high terrace again. [paragraph break] Our journey out today is simple. I carry the canoe one last time over the up-down 30 rod. We pass our mustachioed friends, who wave at us from their campsite and wish us luck. We paddle past the large group of instagram girls from the taj mahal going in the other direction, and wonder where their little white dog went. [paragraph break] As if to give us a little parting gift, the wind picks up heartily on our last two miles and we battle small white-capped waves for what feels like hours. We pass one wind-whipped campsite with two large dogs that bark and jump around happily when I shout “doggies!” [paragraph break] All too soon, we reach the end of our journey. Although it was also the start, it doesn’t look familiar at all. Kristin portages us out, only this time instead of a beautiful view with sparkling water on the other side there is only a small gravel parking lot where the sun glints off the windshields.