BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 03 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 1.5
Elevation: 1235 feet
Little Gabbro Lake - 33
Island & Isabella river tour, chasing the ice out
May 06, 2022
Isabella Lake (35)
Number of Days:
During my morning break at work, I receive an email from Ginny at Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters wondering if I actually plan on utilizing my overnight paddle permit for Island River EP #34 today? I call and verify that I am indeed going to 'roll the dice' and will be in to pick it up during my lunchbreak.
Ginny graciously opens the door as I arrive and confirms my suspicions that, with the lakes in the area still locked up with ice, there haven't been any people showing up to pick up permits. She informs me that she has issued a few hiking permits; although I am the first to claim a reserved overnight paddle for the season. As we chat, I reveal that I'm not so concerned about the rivers being snow & ice free, as I am about the Tomahawk Trail (a mostly unmaintained forest road) being nearly free of those very same things.
On my way out of town I grab a Subway sandwich to eat as I drive to the entry point. I'm encouraged seeing the Kawishiwi River completely open as I cross over on my drive south down Highway 1. And the Tomahawk Trail is in great shape as I turn down that historic thoroughfare. It appears there has been some logging going on very recently so, that might explain the excellent initial conditions of the road. Further on, however, I start encountering some snow across the road in various shaded places. Still, there are clearly evident tracks that others have proceeded onwards so I follow suit.
Passing by the Little Isabella & Snake River EP spur, I stop and see complete snow cover on that road. A little less sure, I press on only to start encountering patches of ice with increasing frequency. The fact that there is always a track running through them is the only reason I maintain the confidence to keep going. In vain, I struggle to recall the nature of the upcoming road, as my van rumbles, bounces and pinballs in the frozen double luge lane. However, as I sluggishly pass by the Bog Lake Road the reality is I am making slow steady progress ever northeastward. In my resolute quest to satisfy my deep passion for outdoor adventures and make this trip happen; the iconic words so eloquently penned long ago by St Paul, ruminate in my heart. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”
Finally, the old wooden trestle bridge crossing the Island River comes into view! Further glad tidings present themself as I discover the large lobe of water to the west is completely free of ice. This was my litmus test: if this large expanse of flat water is open, I surmise the rest of the river(s) will assuredly be.
In short order I’ve got the Black Pearl (my canoe) loaded and I'm on the water. The water is so high I actually have to duck as I effortlessly glide under the trestle, the brisk current pushing me through. With the uncommon & unrelentingly cold April, and early May, northern Minnesota has experienced this spring; the indulgent rays of radiantly sultry sunshine this late afternoon offers a sublime measure of contentment that only those hardy souls who have endured this frigid tribulation unabridged can fully savor.
As I scan the still scarred (from the Pagami Creek fire) horizons, there are still some small remnant pockets of snow cover along the southern shoreline brightly accentuating the otherwise stark scene. Curiously, my eyes soon fixate on a motionless round puff of fur sitting atop a shoreline boulder. As I paddle ever closer it appears to be a dead beaver, as it makes nary a move as I draw near. Suddenly, at the last second, it flops into the water! Apparently, it had just been sleeping. Not sure, at this point, who is the more startled?
Having paddled across this largest lobe of the Island River propelled by a winter's worth of stored-up adrenaline; I now turn north into a constricted, more riverine stretch of this waterway. I won’t go so far as to call this section a gorge but, there are precipitous slopes shadowing both flanks. With the current high volume of icy water flooding through these narrows, the cacophony of the distant rapids echoing off the hillsides sounds not unlike traffic on a busy downtown street. According to my Voyageur map the portage is supposed to be on river left. I see nothing that resembles anything close to a landing or, even a trail climbing up these mostly barren inclines. Fortunately, it’s a straight shot down the barrel of this chute. Well in advance, I can clearly see there are no strainers or impediments, and only ‘haystacks’ (the fun kind of waves) down river so, I confidently decide to run these rapids.
Warily piloting my fully loaded craft into the midst of these rolling rapids, I keep an ever-watchful eye out for potential hazards as the Black Pearl bobs in an orchestrated cadence through this long stretch of whitewater. Only the sporadic spray of icy cold water sharply stinging my cheeks, tempers this otherwise exhilarating ride.
As I wash out into flat waters, my exuberant demeanor gives way to a more somber tone. Pulling into a calm back water eddy, I begin searching for the downstream landing or trail. Once again, I see nothing that even looks like it could be. Perhaps the high water is concealing the portage but, I think the more likely answer is that most of the time, with lower water levels, people still run or line their canoes through these rapids, so the portage is rarely if ever needed. Obviously, I didn’t need it here today either. However, I am quite concerned as there is currently no way I will be able to safely walk or line my canoe up these near class II rapids on the return trip. Sitting motionless atop a frigid liquid highway, contemplating the significance of my newfound reality; the uneasy question, “What did I just get myself into?!” swiftly bubbles to forefront of my mind. In times of distress, I turn to my Lord. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Today's trouble is now the 3-rod portage just down river. This one curves around a bend in the river and I cannot get a good look at it. I pull up to the landing on river left. There are so many downed trees preventing easy viewing that I surmise it would actually be more work to properly scout this one than to actually do this short easy portage. I make quick work of this diminutive up & over.
A very brief paddle later, at the confluence of the Isabella River, the waterway once again broadens out. I wouldn’t call this a lake but, it is a decent enough sized body of water that discerning exactly where the river flows in this flood plain is a bit challenging. There is a designated campsite at the western edge just as the river narrows so, I navigate my way over and take an expeditious break.
The landing isn’t very user friendly but, I reason that it is likely much more accommodating at normal water levels. It’s something of a scramble up to the site proper but, once there, a wonderful little sheltered camp with a couple of grassy tent pads is unveiled. Even though the river narrows here, this site does offer a measure of privacy. Not that I’m expecting any passersby!
Back on the river, I paddle towards what I expect to be the first real challenge of the day – the 106-rod portage. My eyes guardedly catch the perpetual aquatic splash dance of water cascading off of unseen boulders downstream. Once again, the portage is supposed to be on river left and I spy an opening that looks promising just ahead. Admittedly, this is where I ‘hoped’ the landing would be. As fate would have it, the actual landing is still closer to the head of these formidable rapids. I gingerly maneuver around a myriad of overhanging trees in the accelerating current, ever mindful of keeping tight to shore. Providentially, I soon pinpoint, and pull safely into, the proper landing and begin the laborious process of peeling my fingers, one by one, from my paddle. In the end the dramatics were perhaps unnecessary but, this is unquestionably a section of the river where I don’t want to mess up.
In the pre-Black Pearl days, my brother Clay & I had done a trip from Isabella Lake down the length of the Isabella River and eventually exited out Little Gabbro Lake. I don’t remember all of details from that adventure but, I do vividly recall seeing our 1st moose in the wilderness, excitedly running many of the smaller rapids along the river including the chute between Bald Eagle & Gabbro lakes and, the big cedar trees at the end of this portage.
Soon after starting down the trail, there is a boardwalk over a marshy area. With the river in full flood and the snow cover recently melting, I’m flabbergasted, though grateful, that this section (or any other) isn’t under water. The trail rolls along past countless fallen casualties of the Pagami Creek fire. The only visible marks, along this otherwise untrodden path, are those from moose and wolves. Eventually it drops down to the river's edge near the head of the most impressive rapids before crossing over a footbridge across a small gorge. It’s not exactly Curtain Falls but, the sheer volume of water pumping through here provides a front row seat to witness a similarly majestic display of nature’s breathtaking fury.
Continuing on; the trail drops down the only really significant hill on the trail, terminating at a flooded landing. Sadly, I make note that only a lone sentinel of the impressive grove of cedars survived the ravages of the fire; as I pay silent tribute to a few of the now hollowed-out collapsed shells alongside the trail as I finish the portage.
Back out on the river, where these rapids wash out, I give the tempestuous flume a wide berth and stay in the back water eddies. As I approach Rice Lake, I notice a couple of beavers perched on something out in the middle of the watershed. Upon closer inspection, they are on top of their barely visible huts. The water is up that high!
The two campsites formerly located in Rice Lake have long ago been abandoned so, I turn west to claim the site where the Isabella River exits the lake. The current is a bit pushy here and I overshoot the landing. But, eventually pull in to the fabled Stonehenge site #1938.
This site came by the 'Stonehenge' moniker because of the eerily elliptical configuration of expansive boulders encircling the camp, including a particularly gargantuan rock towering over the west side. Clay & I had previously stopped here to fry up some walleyes on our aforementioned trip. The fire has leveled much of the area but, there is a beautifully flat, grassy area in the midst of the boulder array and the fire grate is well protected up against one of the boulders. There is a small, though commanding, promontory jutting out with which to sit and contemplate the expanse of the lake or, the western river valley. Premium dead, downed & dried out firewood is scattered in all directions but, a severe shortage of mature trees in and near camp is certainly the big drawback. Still, I’m grateful to call this home for the next few days.
Since this is only a weekend trip, I left my hammock & CCS tarp at home. Doesn’t appear they would’ve seen the light of day at this site anyways, as I enlist one of the precious few larger trees nearby for hanging my gravity water filter. Camp goes up quick, and I gather enough wood to get enough of a fire going to cook my hobo dinner. This is just some chicken, steak, medley of vegetables, seasoning & butter wrapped in aluminum foil. This is an incredibly low maintenance meal that I can just throw and leave unattended on the fire while finishing stocking my firewood coffer.
It’s supposed to drop into the 20’s tonight so I don my Under Armour before the sun goes down, and then enjoy the spoils of my labors & the bounty God has graced me with this day. Basking in the luxuriant glow of a well-stocked campfire while consuming a hearty dinner.
There is a quote (I believe originating with Socrates?) my Priest used for an Ash Wednesday homily a few years ago that applies to one of the primary reasons I so cherish getting away to the BWCAW. “A busy life is an unexamined life. An unexamined life is rarely worth living.” Canoe country lends itself so ably to this sacred endeavor. As always, spending quality time alone with my Lord in this tranquil natural environment is a soothing salve for my soul.
My Under Armour pulls double duty as it not only kept me toasty last night but, now serves to hasten me out of the tent as the sun rises and quickly heats up the interior.
The one piece of new gear that I’d purchased this off season was a MSR Alpine Stainless Steel Camping Fry Pan which I use to cook breakfast in this morning. I’ve come to implicitly trust, the bwca.com member who goes by the screen name, “butthead” for my gear reviews. He recommended this, and it certainly performs up to expectations.
After my scrambled egg breakfast, I assess the weather situation. The wind is gusting out of the east. Pre-trip I had ambitious thoughts of exploring further down river but, the combination of the exceedingly pushy river current and a persistent, gusty wind is enough to dissuade me. I instead decide to explore Rice Lake more thoroughly but, first, I linger in camp for a while.
Of course, I make the obligatory climb up to the peak of the largest boulder to appreciate the rarified air & view. It looks like something had supper up here as there is a severed bird's foot near the top. This also provides another opportunity to spend some more quality time serenely reflecting.
Solitude can be a tricky thing, as it is a double-edged blade that has the propensity to cut deeply in either direction. However, I believe tragic fear of loneliness, (feeling alone) presents enough of an obstacle that most seem to completely disregard the abundant fruits of healthy solitude which throws open the gateway to contemplation. In his book: Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes persuasively, “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source....To enter into the realm of contemplation one must in a certain sense die: but this death is in fact the entrance into a higher life. And for me, a quote from Blaise Pascal truly hammers home the benefit of solitude. “All of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I refuse to allow these fleeting moments I have been graced with to go by without an acknowledgement of gratitude as I pull out my Rosary ring and soak in the blessings of the day until I am saturated.
Getting my head out of the clouds, I descend from this granite perch and begin curiously exploring around the perimeter of camp.
Nearly a decade after the fact, the fire marred landscape surrounding camp is still easily explored. While it won’t get confused with Pompeii’s pillar, the camp and nearby area are all on an elevated granite knob overlooking a swamp. The devastation from the Pagami Creek fire is clearly still evident. Perhaps the very limited foliage of this late spring is a primary contributor but, it doesn’t seem like this area is coming back as fast as the areas affected by the big fires in the Gunflint region. I think Henry David Thoreau’s observation, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” is especially pertinent here.
While some may look only at the charred, branchless, sunbaked pillars shaping the horizon in every direction; I see an understory of sprouting young Popple trees which, as evidenced by the 4 separate clusters of moose ‘plums’ within 50 yards of my fire grate, are facilitating a return of these iconic creatures to their one-time preeminence in this area.
While some may only look at barren landscapes; I see unique opportunities to contemplate long hidden panoramic vistas that will soon be concealed yet again.
While some may only look at jumbled masses of toppled trees and sparse ground cover; I see easily accessible exploration opportunities and unlimited, dried out firewood close at hand.
So, while I will certainly stand and be counted as one who would revel in the mystical enchantment of a mature pristine forest, I feel it is a unique blessing to be afforded an opportunity to witness this re-generation firsthand as this area is slowly restored to its former glory.
I’m definitely not going to complain about being granted another gloriously warm, sunny day. However, my Sawyer gravity water filter is hanging from one of the only mature trees in the area which means there is literally no shade. So, my bag of filtered water just sits utterly exposed to the sun and heats up throughout the day. I’d noticed a small alcove by the river that still has some snow stubbornly hanging on. So, before heading out, I fill my coffee pot with the sun warmed filtered water and bury it in that snowbank. In that way I’ll have ice-cold water upon my return from my exploratory paddle around Rice Lake.
No sooner am I out on the water than I get to experience the inconvenience of gusty winds swirling about the lake. With the Black Pearl’s cargo holds barren of any burden, my weight alone isn’t enough to prevent getting irrevocably blown off course from time to time. Attempting to identify the silver lining, I remind myself that I’m ever so grateful for my earlier decision not to head down river. As I enter the main body of Rice Lake, I am astounded by the sheer number of various waterfowl that take flight as the Black Pearl rounds each new corner. They disperse so quickly, that it’s impossible to get a photo that will do justice to representing the spectacle. Reminds me of Back Bay on Basswood Lake.
Another curiosity is revealed as I pull around to the north side of the peninsula. There is a conglomeration of ice crystals softly chiming in the shallow water amidst the decayed shoreline reeds. I am fascinated by the phenomenon and reminded just what the water temperature will be in the event of a capsize.
It’s a week before the Minnesota fishing opener but, I could still legally fish for panfish; including crappies, which are in both Isabella & Bald Eagle Lakes. So, it would stand to reason that there is a possibility that they would also inhabit the river connecting the two lakes. However, I have left my fishing gear behind for this trip. Besides, I don’t feel the high, dirty water would've been conducive for success.
Even with the aid of GPS, I cannot locate where either of the 2 former campsites used to be. There is no evidence of a landing or anything. And it appears the site that used to be on the peninsula would currently be underwater anyways. My curiosity satisfied; I have an epic battle with the wind, as I’m spun around a few different times attempting to trace the shoreline back to camp. It’s a vigorous workout that definitely helps prevent my paddling muscles from slipping into an atrophic state anytime soon.
I don’t return to camp empty handed. Since I really didn’t have a good fire-pole in camp, I managed to grab a top-notch beaver stick from along the shoreline of Rice Lake. The level of contentment attained from the simple pleasures of poking at a fire with a good stick is inestimable.
With the immense shadow from the largest boulder beginning to stretch across camp, while busying myself with camp chores; a subtle, short, melancholic honk grabs my attention. I wander out onto the point by the riverside and discover I am not alone as a single trumpeter swan floats in the current just out from shore. Upon seeing me, he turns tail and begins a slow retreat back up river.
The encounter with the swan gets me pondering solitude yet again. As I eat my steaming supper, the ambient glow of my campfire is accompanied by the celestial luminosity of another star lit evening. It occurs to me that I am in one of the only areas of canoe country that currently provides access to a legal campsite. Presumably all the rivers up here are open but, precious few offer camping opportunities. The only other area I can surmise that is open, and has campsites is the Kawishiwi Triangle. As Ginny attested, there are certainly hikers out and about but, I think it’s safe to say that the Black Pearl is one of the few, if not the only, legally camped canoe in the one million plus acres that is the BWCAW. That’s a level of solitude I don’t think I’ve approached before.
Normally on travel days I usually just have a quick easy breakfast; pop tart, Clif bar or oatmeal. But this morning I take the time to cook some scrambled eggs. Maybe, subconsciously, I just want to use my new fry pan again?
I have to work a little extra to propel the fully loaded Black Pearl upstream in the strong current of this pinch point before entering Rice Lake. The same 2 beavers are still waiting out the flood waters as I paddle by approaching the 106-rod portage. While I cautiously paddle around the washout flume, I’m still quite wary as strong backwater eddies can sometimes do strange things to a canoe. I pull into the landing, grateful for the uneventfulness of the moment.
Upon completing the portage, I can’t help but notice that the wind has kicked up. Providentially it's not on par with yesterday but, it's still concerning enough as, I don’t want it to gust and turn me around at the top of these big rapids. I keep the wood in the water and make it to where I determine is a safe distance up river before letting off the throttle a bit. On cue it begins raining.
Having just enjoyed two gloriously warm days, Mother Nature apparently doesn’t want me to fail to recall her bitter, wintry breath just yet. It’s not a downpour but, the droplets are exceedingly cold. And, not knowing how long this will last or, wanting to compromise my currently warm countenance, I pull off to suit up in my raingear.
Just after passing by campsite #1930, I now enter back into the flood plain and the inimical moment is upon me. On my way in, I hadn’t seen a way around the extensive Island River rapids that, once bypassed, will eventually lead back to the parking lot where my van is parked. A bushwhack there didn’t look too enviable either. So, after a quick prayer, I take a vote. Since it’s just me, it’s unanimous! After I quick study of the map, I realize I should be able to just use the Pow-Wow hiking trail to get out. Or, if I’m incredibly blessed, Isabella Lake with be free enough of ice that I can paddle to that much shorter portage.
First order of business is the 20-rod portage into the Isabella River. Could’ve run this one had I been heading the other way but, it is an easy enough trail. There is a nice downstream landing, a very flat, user-friendly trail before a short little drop down to the river on the upstream side.
It appears the Island River is providing most of the flood water as this portion of the Isabella River, while flooded, doesn’t appear to be nearly as inundated. There are several large boulders in the river that I paddle past while battling the pesky headwinds.
At about the halfway point to the lake there is a nice little campsite on the northern shore. The fire grate is right on the water but, there are a couple of really nice tent pads. Jack pines dominate the backdrop, though none are large enough for tarps or hammocks. I can’t imagine this one gets a lot of use.
Initially I continue fighting the head wind as before but, am afforded a most welcome reprieve as I enter the wide expanse before the final portage into Isabella Lake. This is perhaps the best extended paddling conditions I’ve encountered on this trip and, I truly savor these invaluable moments.
I pull up to the exceptional downstream landing for 42-rod portage to Isabella Lake. I bring my first load to the intersection of the Pow-Wow hiking trail and veer off to inspect the trail to the bridge over the river. The water is high enough that it’s also coming down the off-chute channel where there is no bridge. The water here is only ankle deep but, even though it’s likely a fool’s errand, I can’t resist the urge to check out Isabella Lake. So, I haul all my gear to the lake end where its open water as far as can be seen.
As I paddle out, it doesn’t take long before I discern a huge sheet of ice. However, there appears to be open water along the southern shoreline so I eagerly press forward. I paddle closer and discover that while there are indeed open water sections along the south shore, there are also sections of ice pressed tight to shore that I would have to cross. If I could guarantee that it was only the short stretch in front of me, I think I might go for it. But, as it is, while seeing the lake in this state is certainly a spectacle to behold and I don’t regret checking things out, the task appears to be far too daunting to safely undertake so, I retreat back to the portage.
The channel I need to cross is probably only about 25 feet across and, as mentioned, the water is only about ankle deep at the intersection. Furthermore, its only knee deep just downstream so, I’m not overly concerned about getting washed downriver but, I certainly don’t want to slip and get soaked in the icy water. There is a downed tree that aids in navigating my way across but, not wanting the Black Pearl to roll in the rapids I use one hand to steady my ship and end up slipping a bit. I bang my shins and some water floods in over my boots before gingerly hopping up on the other side.
The water is chilly but, it's not concerning as long as I keep moving. Just across the bridge there is a very nice campsite where I stage my gear. This site is more situated for hikers of the Pow-Wow trail but, the with the flood waters I surmise it may have been more prudent to have tried to land here and bushwhack up to this site. Hindsight is 20/20.
It’s amazing that this site is virtually untouched by the ravages of the Pagami Creek fire, while only a stone's throw in any direction will get to a heavily burnt area. I juxtapose this phenomena to the current circumstances of my life.
It was nearly a year ago that my divorce became final. That fire severely ravaged my life but, it has not destroyed me. Much like this campsite, there are untouched sanctuaries of my persona that can offer comfort & rest while the surrounding area is slowly renewed and replenished. In a sense, not unlike the natives of generations past who purposely burnt this land to propagate more bountiful future crops of blueberries. If I don’t lose heart and abide in Him, I will also unlock the possibility of bearing much fruit.
The Pow-Wow trail shows unmistakable evidence of a trail clearing crew having just passed through. The better percentage of the trail could be driven down, as it resembles a road. In fact, I believe that is exactly what this trail once was. The ghost town of Forest Center was once located here so, while I now consider it a wilderness; this was once literally someone’s back yard. There are several fascinating threads on bwca.com discussing this area, complete with testimonies from people who grew up in Forest Center – which was abandoned in 1964.
Plodding along, I am compelled to wade through a few areas that are underwater. The depth here is also over the top of my boots so, once again looking for the silver lining, I feel a little better about having gotten soaked crossing the river. The wilderness boundary is about the halfway mark so, this becomes my drop spot while I go back for my next load.
Light rain is falling on and off as I finally emerge at the empty parking lot. I ever so briefly contemplate bringing my first load with me on the mile long walk back to my van at the Island River entry point parking lot. Once there, I note that the water has risen slightly since I entered. If it comes up another 8-10 inches, it will begin flooding this parking lot. I drive back to the Pow-Wow trail/Isabella Lake parking lot and then finish portaging the rest of my gear.
I’m looking forward to a warm meal and cold drink but, most places in Ely are closed today so, I drive down to Neighbors BBQ just south of Tower right off highway 169. No sooner do I sit down, when a friend from church Jason (who was along on the infamous “Paddling with Padres” trip up to Crooked Lake a couple of years ago.) invites me to join him and his wife Katie. They’re indisputably a great pair and are thoroughly entertaining dinner companions. I am thankful they allowed this stinky camper to join them. Also, for anyone who likes smoked meats & craft beer, I think Neighbors BBQ will be to your liking.
As I write this there have been several harrowing stories of swamped canoes circulating. But for the grace of God, I could have been counted among their ranks. I really appreciate all the people who had the courage to share their tales of woe. I think it goes right to what I shared about Thomas Merton when he said, “in a certain sense, one must die.” The valor these people have shown in putting themselves ‘out there’ to share their stories for the benefit of others, opening themselves up to criticism and scoff (and thus, in a sense dying) exemplifies his point. I just want to say I’m thankful they’re ok and, once again, applaud them for selflessly sharing.
What a blessing this trip was! So grateful things worked out and I was able to thoroughly enjoy a couple of peaceful nights in canoe country. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam!