BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 02 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1201 feet
South Kawishiwi River - 32
Can you canoe Judd Lake?
October 22, 2022
Little Gabbro Lake
Number of Days:
We only had three full days to paddle so we positioned ourselves nicely by spending Friday night at the VNO Bunkhouse. Then Saturday morning set out for EP 33 Little Gabbro Lake. The temp was above freezing and forecast was for a beautiful day! We saw a few grouse hunters on the way and a few vehicles in the parking lot.
We loaded up and made our way down the first long, but well-trodden trail to Little Gabbro. Bret with packs fore and aft, myself with a pack and the boat. Odie with a PFD (pooch floatation device) and tow rope errr, I mean leash. We paddled up the chute into Gabbro and along its length to a short portage into Bald Eagle. On Bald Eagle we saw our first and last humans of the trip. We made our way up to Turtle Lake and then on to Clearwater. We planned to camp on Clearwater and then find our way up to Rock Island and Lake Two the next day. We must have missed a couple campsites and the first one we found on the north shore was not appetizing. The map I was carrying predated the Pagami Creek Fire but showed one campsite on the northeastern part of the lake which was clearly within the burn area. But in that direction, there was a small grove of trees on a point evident from quite a distance. When we got there it was apparent the immediate campsite had survived and it was perfect for our small group (two small tents albeit close to the fire grate). Alternatively, could probably accept 1-2 hammocks with some creativity. It lacked a good bear hang and seating. But firewood was abundant;) Also a beautiful view from the throne. After setting up camp we ventured down to find what remained of the portage to Judd Lake (and eventually Rock Island Lake). The portage is shown on some maps but not others. I believe this is part of the Weasel Lake PMA and as such doesn’t get maintained. And the fire did it no favors. But the first 30ish rods looked manageable so we decided to make an attempt of it in the morning. Plan B was to go back to Bald Eagle by way of Camdre, Pietro and Gull Lakes.
Odie was proving to be a great trip partner. He did well in the boat, on portages and provided comic relief zooming about the campsite and rearranging our firewood. We felt a sense of accomplishment when he was finally worn out and laid down to eat.
After a warm breakfast, coffee and thorough vetting of the thunderbox we broke camp and made our way towards the Judd Lake portage-ready for an adventure. Bret noticed something swimming out from shore. It clearly noticed us too and retreated back to shore. We got phone video of it jumping up onto shore and disappearing into the thicket. We weren’t sure what we had seen but knew it was bigger than Odie. And it retreated eerily close to the pit toilet we had just used! When Bret was killing time waiting for me on the next portage, he was able to review the video, zoom way in and see the long tail, canine features and stature of a wolf! We had heard wolves across the lake the night prior (and innumerable times before) but I had never seen a wolf in the wilderness.
The portage from Clearwater to Judd is reasonably long at 240 rods and quite overgrown with small birch and jack pine but it is mercifully dry. The trail is pretty easy to follow. Wide packs and the canoe scraped branches for almost the entire portage. There were a few particularly tight turns with the canoe which will only get more difficult or impossible as the trees get bigger and stronger (unless some are selectively removed/trimmed). In hindsight I’m glad we didn’t bring any fishing rods on this trip-even stowed above the thwarts in the canoe I’m sure they would have snagged and/or broken several times on this portage.
Judd Lake was a beautiful sight. I bet we’ll be the last to see it this year. Bret got to recover by its shore while I went back for the canoe (which I had put down about ½ way). We loaded up and paddled NE to the bog that separates it from Rock Island Lake. We were able to paddle to a large old beaver dam but beyond that was only a shallow channel surrounded by floating bog. We were able to float the canoe and packs up the channel while we waded and jumped from sinking bog pad to pad until we reached Rock Island Lake. I’m glad Bret was game for the adventure and wasn’t worried about getting wet. Also, grateful the weather cooperated with bluebird skies and unseasonably warm temps. Will be hard to forget Judd Lake!
We made our way across Rock Island Lake with a goal to have lunch on Lake Two. The stream connecting the two lakes is navigable except for a beaver dam or two, and a short portage on the Lake Two end. Overall, we invested 3-4 hours and considerable effort to get from Clearwater to Lake Two. Exactly the type 2 fun we were looking for and a sense of accomplishment. As a bonus I was looking to bag a couple new lakes-in my 40+ BWCA trips I’ve never paddled any of the numbered lakes.
We found an elevated breezy campsite in the SW corner of the lake for lunch and to plan the rest of our day. Now that we had made it to Lake Two our eventual goal was to loop back to EP33 via the Kawishiwi River. So, we made our way over to Lake One. Who knew navigating a big lake with a bunch of islands could be so humbling. After circumnavigating the lake, we eventually found the 16 rod portage and western shortcut to the Kawishiwi River.
We made our way around several rapids and followed the river to the west and southwest to nearly the branch point where the South Kawishiwi takes off to the southwest. Entry point 29 comes in from Ojibway and Triangle Lakes in this section as well. We were paddling directly into the sun and I was lamenting that I forgot sunglasses. We inspected the campsite closest to the EP and low and behold there was an inexpensive pair of Islander Eyes waiting for me. If you ask me Eyelanders would be a catchier brand name but maybe that was taken. In any case, there wasn’t much for flat tent pads so we moved on.
With the sun getting low on the horizon, we needed to lower our expectations too. We found the campsite on the island just downstream to be a suitable spot to spend the night. It is on the east side of the island on a steep rocky outcropping. Our map made it appear to be on the west side of the island. It was a nice spot with tons of places to hang food and hammocks (my usual dwelling). Quite a few tent clearings if you’re into off-camber, sometimes muddy pads. The forecast was for rain so we avoided any depressions.
Odie once again had a blast exploring the campsite but kept close and came when called-all I could hope for. Camping on an island offered a small measure of comfort because Odie was unlikely to swim away. But we knew that critters were perfectly capable of visiting us. And that night we heard the wolves howling again and not far away before the storms rolled in. We initially flailed in our campfire efforts but eventually got a nice burn. Also got a nice burn from some Fireball and Bailey’s before turning in.
Odie weathered the stormy weather like a champ! That was one scenario we had not simulated. Our old dog Allie would have been a mess.
And the rain stopped by the time we were emerging from our tents. Aside from everything being wet, camp breakdown went smooth. And Bret was able to continue his streak of packing up a wet tent at the end of every trip;)
We were anticipating an easy return trip to Little Gabbro. Probably would have been if I had done any research on the routes from the South Kawishiwi to Little Gabbro! We figured why portage if you don’t have to and the eastern-most path looked rewarding on my map. When we turned the corner and found the current in our faces and a swift chute to paddle up that should have been our first clue. But we pushed on-long live adventure! We could smell the entry point at this point-probably a mile from the final portage.
When we encountered another swift section of water and rocks, we decided to try lining the boat upstream. After several missteps and now water-logged from the waist down we had made it about 20 or 30 rods (of a roughly ½ mile stream). It was time to reevaluate our options because the rapids were unrelenting and this seemed unsustainable. We could backtrack and paddle about 2 miles back downstream and wrap around to the 121 rod portage. Or we could bushwhack less than a ¼ mile to the west and find the same portage. The math was simple. The execution was not. Even with a compass bearing we were quickly disoriented. Bret made a brilliant decision to check our position with his phone’s GPS. Even though we were in thick forest it quickly registered our position. With our known location we were then able to bushwhack the remainder of the way to the 121 rod portage. We were near its northern terminus and of course tired from our lining rapids/bushwhacking adventure. So, we loaded the boat up again and went to check out the western paddling route. On my map this was dotted with a couple short portages. But when we turned the corner and saw more swift water in our faces, we decided there was a good reason for the well-traveled 121 rod portage. Bret’s phone also warned us that the forecast had changed and we should expect rain. We were so wet from river and sweat that we didn’t bother donning our rain gear.
By the time we reached Little Gabbro Lake it was indeed raining pretty good. And the wind seemed intent on making the final push memorable. I couldn’t help but laugh like a madman. The skies parted before we reached the final portage. It afforded a nice opportunity to look back at the lake and say goodbye-until next year, old friend. And then we crushed that last portage back to the truck. Stronger and grateful for the adventure.
Trailgate beers tasted pretty good. Odie jumped right in the truck and laid down. Bret went to change clothes and when he returned Odie greeted him skeptically with a bark. It was the first time Odie had barked in 3 days. I think he found his happy place too.
I can’t imagine this trip going any better-thanks Bret and Odie!
Odie scored a bunch of new to him Ruffwear gear before this trip and it all worked great. Thanks Facebook marketplace and REI scratch and dent sections. Float Coat indeed seems to float and the bright yellow is pretty visible on portages. Ruffwear Roamer leash worked great for hands-free dog control on portages. As we all got more comfortable Odie eventually portaged off leash and followed me and the canoe. Bret trailed and made sure Odie didn’t veer off trail. We also got a used Ruffwear Highlands sleeping bag which he laid on mostly. He did tolerate being draped with it one night but never circled up in it. I didn’t get the impression he was cold at any point but wasn’t sure what to expect with temps dropping into the 30s. What can I say-his fur coat rocks.
CCS Rucksack - perfect size for a front pack (thanks for carrying it Bret;). Held my tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, clothes and toiletries/ditty bag. I anticipate my daughters carrying it on future trips.
Muck boots with Arctic Grip Vibram soles - allowed me to wade out into a foot or more of water and stay dry and warm. Really impressive grip-even on slimy wet rocks that were as slick as snot. I need to figure out some heel blister issues which has more to do with my narrow feet/fit but especially for shoulder season tripping I think these will be my new go-to footwear. These were also purchased for use ice fishing, blowing snow, muddy yard work and maybe someday bird hunting.
BeFree water filter 1L - so easy to use and filters about as fast as you can drink. Nice to be able to empty prior to a portage to save carried weight. Perfect for BWCA where your next water source is never far away. If I was taking a larger group would bring the 3 liter gravity version along as well. This was my first time using the BeFree paddling the BWCA but have used it on multiple hiking trips and been very pleased with it.
Jetboil MicroMo - regulated butane stove/pot/cooking system. Stupid fast boiling for all of your hot drink and dehydrated meal needs. Regulator keeps it functioning when temps drop. I have lighter cook systems but nothing this simple to use/efficient.