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BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

July 12 2024

Entry Point 35 - Isabella Lake

Isabella Lake entry point allows overnight paddle only. This entry point is supported by Tofte Ranger Station near the city of Isabella, MN. The distance from ranger station to entry point is 21 miles. Access is a 35-rod portage to Isabella Lake.

Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1595 feet
Latitude: 47.8009
Longitude: -91.3034
Isabella Lake - 35

A happy ending

by ECpizza
Trip Report

Entry Date: June 25, 1999
Entry Point: Lake One
Exit Point: Snowbank Lake Only (28)
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 6

Trip Introduction:
My apologies if I breach any etiquette. This story is of a trip 14 years ago. It was a defining moment for me, and as I find myself unable to go to the BWCA this summer for the first time in 14 years. I hope it is a story for those who might be discouraged after a disastrous trip. It is really long and long winded. My wife commented on how miserable every trip sounds and quickly I want to go back. I guess it's true. As I wrote this I realized I seem to be able to "feel" the good parts as I am remembering the "bad" parts. I'm sure some of you will understand...


A church I had recently started attending had a tradition of the pastor taking the high school kids on a BWCA trip. The date had been set, but then the pastor had to back out. The teens look at this as a sort of right of passage, and I understood as I had shared that experience. Somehow, I had been nominated to "lead" this trip. Having visited the BWCA with my church as a teenager, and given my extensive experience of 2 years camping with the Cub Scouts... I decided I was qualified to lead this adventure. I had one requirement, a second adult. They scrounged up another volunteer... who backed out just a week before the trip. Being creative teenagers, they pointed out that one of their number had just turned 18 and was therefore "an adult". I didn't want to let them down, so I accepted their argument, and the trip was a "go".

Not being a complete fool, I had done my homework. I read the books, did some searching on that new "internet" thing. I bought maps, and planned to follow the route I had twice as a high schooler. After all, my friends and I had done it on our first ever trip. I did however fail to consider the value of a professional guide.

On a beautiful June morning, we loaded up and headed north to Ely. We rented the bunkhouse at Kawishiwi Resort right on Lake One. The couple running the place were fantastic. The husband checked out our gear, gave a lesson in paddling, and turned the kids loose. He then offered me some advice about hitting the lake early to avoid wind, selecting campsites early, all that jazz. The wife showed my teenage charges where the pool table and TV were. I watched our plans of an early departure evaporate. But, I reminded myself, this trip was for them. So I let them go.

The next day we hit the lake at the crack of noon. I was amazed at the amount of time it took them to load up -in the bunkhouse no less- and get to the canoes. This did not bode well for hitting lakes early.

As we set off onto Lake One, the sky was overcast, the temperature a comfortable 65, and no wind to speak of. We are so fortunate it was so calm. It was quickly apparent that a paddling demonstration does not make one a capable canoeist. Of the "experienced" ones, none had ever sat in the rear. We took off into the lake and must have looked like Shriners in our canoes.

We did somewhat start to get some control. I pulled out my map and compass and quickly discovered the compass was all but useless to me. It could have been user error, but I prefer to think of it as an anomaly caused by the unique magnetic nature of the rock up there. With no sun to guide us, and no compass reading I could trust, I began to navigate by landmarks. However, the scale always gets me. One of the yung 'uns said that the pastor told them he listened for running water to find the portage. We turned "left" (or east) and set off towards what the map and the sound told me was the portage. We searched and searched for the portage. Even if I were to concede the possibility I had made a mistake, none would have wanted to believe me. You see, just as we turned, the wind picked up. We were grateful for the push when it was pushing us where we thought we needed to go.

But alas. Eventually we all agreed to set out against the wind and backtrack. A short while later we discovered the mistake and were back on course. And then came this mist. After a short stint of toughing it out, people decided to don raingear. By the time we regrouped and each kid dug out their gear, the mist had turned to a light rain. I was already soaked and eager to press on, so I skipped my raingear. It wasn't -that- cold... It started with my hands. I noticed it was harder to grip the paddle. Soon I was genuinely cold. But we pressed on. Besides, I figured I was already soaked.

I will ask your pardon if I get a technical point or two mixed up. I'm sure we all understand that sometimes the memories of events are crystal clear, but the exact sequence may get a slight bit jumbled. As in the following...

We finally reached the real portage to Lake Two. We set out upon our first portage.

Oh the shame.

Mosquitos to drive you insane. Gear everywhere. No co-ordination. No co-operation. Everything was "too heavy" so they made about 20 trips back and forth. Only then did we realize that after a 60 second paddle across a pond, we had to do it again.

Oh the agony.

That's when one of the boys spotted some people walking their canoe up the rapids. They decided to give it a go. And I, dummy, let them. They seemed to think they were supermen as they walked their canoe up so quickly to the other group. While they did that, the rest of our group started our portage.

We were about to learn that walking a canoe up rapids is not always a smart idea. I have no idea what they are normally like between One and Two, but they were flowing hard that day. It didn't take long for the boys to get in a rough situation.A couple more of us ran into the rapids to assist. Eventually we gave up trying to move forward, and exhausted, went back and portaged. Like we should have done in the first place. The good of the attempt was that with just the boys and the one canoe, we were able to portage in one shot. It dawned on them how much easier it was to just walk a portage once.

We paddled on to Lake Two and immediately sought a campsite, we needed food, dry clothes, and a break. I changed, we ate lunch, and we set out again. The rain continued gently. Soon my dry pants were soaked, and the plastic poncho I brought was an obvious bad choice. It was the misery of freezing in the rain and getting soaked, or roasting alive in that plastic hell getting soaked by your own sweat.

The wind again at our backs, we moved through lakes 2 through 4. We were getting worried as each campsite we passed was filled. We pressed on until evening when we portaged in to Hudson. The group made off in a mad frenzy for a campsite on the left (north) side of the lake on a peninsula directly across from the portage. We claimed the site and set up camp. Gratefully, by the time we picked out tent pads, the rain let up. By dinner, the sun had come out.

After some creative fire starting, we set the potatoes on the coals and waited to grill up some steaks. About the time the food was ready, I started to feel weak and tired. Barely ate a bite of my steak. The scavengers in the group quickly devoured what I was unable to stomach. And as the sun was setting, I headed to my tent. The kids promising to hang the bear bag.

I bet you thought this was going to be a bear story. Sorry that was a different trip...

As I awoke the next morning, Got some water going for hot chocolate or coffee (not something I drink) and prepping breakfast, then I went to wake the group. This group was by far the hardest sleeping group I have ever camped with. After multiple threats of bodily harm if they did not get moving, they finally, one by one, emerged from their nylon caves.

It didn't take too long to pick up that something "funny" was going on and nobody wanted to say anything. You see, one thing I have always been is a fanatic about my tents. People usually only ask to borrow a tent from me once. After 30 minutes of "rules" and the care and feeding of my tents, most give up.

Well, I complimented them on the condition of the camp when they turned in. (Seems one of the girls is petrified at the thought of bears. She memorized the video and made sure the camp was clean.) I then commented that my only correction would be that the food pack was too close to the tents. And they all let out a nervous laugh.

"O.K. What are you all hiding?"

They then pointed out to me a gaping hole in the rainfly of my brand new "i love this tent" six person tent I had sought for so long. Seems that in order to weight the rope they used two heavy duty tent stakes as weight. Missed the branch entirely and ripped the tent. Now, before you wonder how I could have slept through all that, I wonder about that too, I must point out that while I was indeed the owner of the wounded tent, I was sleeping in a different tent. I was so exhausted, even the rock under my tent sticking me in the middle of my back would not keep me awake. Something I would pay for in the days to come. So, the laughter and "sh sh sh" sounds (which always wake me, better to let people make noise than "sh" them) did not wake me either.

The kids said they were sorry, and offered to buy a new tent and all that. I was just thankful I was not sleeping in that tent. I was really mad, but I sucked it up and snuck away from camp for an "emergency" cigarette. I looked at the remaining cigarettes and sighed.

We set out on the lake with only moments to spare and still call it morning. We were grateful for the cool breeze and the partly cloudy skies. Big puffy cumulus clouds drifting slowly. Our paddling had improved remarkably, a skill that was about to be tested as we turned around the point and found ourselves facing what was no longer a breeze, but a stiff wind in our faces.

Perhaps it was the beautiful islands of Insula that suckered us into charging up the middle of the lake. We charged from island to island seeking relief in the leeward side of each. Until we found ourselves with a lot of open water between us and the next island. We set off in earnest. About halfway through this charge, we stopped on a large rock and had a late lunch. The kids all studied the maps and a discussion began. I had told them stories of the sandy beaches on Alice (Alice? Who the...) [sorry, reflex] ...beaches on Alice... They really wanted to go there. But as they studied the map, checked our progress to our route, calculated numbers and lengths of portages, argued the relative merits of each, and decided to re route our trip. We were going to divert strait north, and cut through to Thomas and our campsite for the night maybe two.

After some hard late afternoon paddling, and a swampy portage with enough mosquitoes that I ingested enough for my daily supply of protein, we found a site on Thomas. We set up camp and raced to fix dinner before the sun set.

As the kids did the dishes, it hit me. Hit me hard. An overpowering anxiety. It's so hard to describe, but it's like absolute fear without having anything scare you. To this day I experience that same horrible feeling the first night of almost any wilderness trip. I deal with it by accepting it as the price I pay for my great experiences. Well, I decided this called for an emergency cigarette. I had had another sometime during the day. As I smoked, I felt a bit less anxious, but by no means calm. I debated smoking another, but restrained myself. You see, it was to be "my last cigarette."

Now, some might say the thought of running out of cigarettes in the BWCA. (After all there are no "floating 7-11's" on the lake... But that's a different story...). *ahem*

Now, some might say the thought of running out of cigarettes in the BWCA was the cause of the anxiety. I would agree, but I get it to a greater or lessor degree on every wilderness trip I take. I think it's just the shock of leaving the world. Once I stop for the day, the excitement of getting there passes and a new reality appears. Anyway...

I started a fire via a chemical reaction using a bit of litter picked up off the trail and we had a campfire. Each spoke of their goal for the trip, and I shared my goal of quitting smoking. I excused myself and had "my last cigarette". We sat around and talked a while, and I got progressively and noticeably more edgy.

The next morning, a couple of my charges had awoken before me, (Will wonders ever cease?) and breakfast was being started. I was grateful they were pitching in, but wishing I had something to do. Really anxious and really wanting a cigarette.

As the rest of the herd came to graze, we discussed our plan for the day. We had altered our trip and so had to adapt on the fly. We had planned the night before to make this our layover camp, but now decided it was not the greatest. They decided to break camp and grab the first awesome site we see.

As we broke camp, the crew began to notice Mr. C was acting a bit edgy, and well, downright cranky. We hit the water and paddled up Thomas. A couple sites might have been O.K., but everyone agreed to go "a little farther". We soon came to what I feel is one of the most beautiful parts of the BWCA.

The transit from Thomas to Ima is in part a large lily pad field. Trees, rocks, calm waters. We had a floating lunch among the lilly pads. Soon we came to the portage into Ima.

When I was a kid, this guy came from the camp board to our church and showed a slide show of all the camps and the BWCA trips they led. Every year there was a different slide of the same place. The rocky canyon that the portage comes out into Ima. I am youngest of four, and I remember pictures my siblings brought of that portage. One of the few details I remember from my trips was that same portage. Even now I think of it as a "nice" portage. But As things unfolded later, I think I was not expressing my joy to the crew that well. Of course, I doubt it helped when upon completing our first "single portage" it was discovered we were two paddles short. Even though I didn't say anything, i am not able to hide anger... My scalp turns red for starters... And I am sure my obvious signs of frustration made the crew a bit on edge, not wanting to do anything to set Mr C off.

Through Ima no open sights we passed met our wants, so we paddled on. From Ima to Jordan are some fantastic bluffs. We didn't find any pictographs, but enjoyed the easy paddling. We passed a fast moving group of 20 somethings. The next portage being barely a bump, the boys just carried the loaded canoes over the portage. 

On Jordan, we found the two campsites we wanted were occupied. We debated, and finally decided to go out of our way and scope out a site on the south end of the lake. It was open, and beautiful.

It is fair to say that i had some dumb ideas about this trip. By far the dumbest, and if you learn nothing else, learn this: A trip into the BWCA is NOT the time to quit smoking. Quit before, quit after, but what a lame idea I had to "force" myself to quit. If there are no places to get cigarettes, well then I have no choice. Ah, what an optimistic fool I am.

As I got dinner started (I always cook in the BWCA, and everyone else shares dishes), I was forced to admit I was getting sick. Really sick. Not only was I coughing and sneezing, but I had ... Um... Intestinal discomfort. As dinner was cooking, my charges returned from swimming. One of the lads approached me with a cigarette pack in his hands. This was a surprise to me. A couple of them had been smoking one or two cigarettes after I turned in each night. We'll just say that I was grateful for the cigarettes regardless of the source.

We decided to have our layover here. Nice swimming, berries around, buggy in the evening, but not too bad during the day. Swimming, napping, and a couple of the guys went fishing. I had plenty of time to study the changes in the appearance of the woods near the throne area throughout the day.

A slave to nicotine, one by one the cigarettes went up in smoke. (Ha!) I din't have the willpower for rationing. My head cold had me miserable, and the other ailment left me feeling weak. Late in the afternoon, the fishermen returned with fresh fish, and a pack of cigarettes they had begged off a group they passed.

As evening approached, we prepared to retreat into our tents and leave the campsite to the mosquitos. We further altered our trip. Opting to paddle to Disappointment, camp there, and out Snowbank rather than Ensign-Moose. At this point we all agreed that shorter was better. We had a more realistic view of our capabilities now.

Morning came and, though I was feeling marginally better, I was still sick. Mostly just feeling weak. I did not say anything to the group about this. I didn't have to. We had really bonded on this trip, and quickly. I was the outsider. Before the trip I barely knew just one of the kids, the rest were just faces I had seen before but never met. The kids all knew each other well. The five of them accepted me as "one of the tribe", and a "cool" one at that. Shoot, I was never "cool" in high school! They picked up on what I was feeling.

They had oatmeal for breakfast, I can't stand oatmeal, I ate a nutrigrain bar. After breakfast we broke camp. By now we were hitting the water about 9 am. Their clocks were getting set to BWCA Standard Time finally.

After a short paddle we came to our first portage. It did not go well. Eventually we were back on the water and it began to rain. We paddled leisurely the short distance to the next portage. We were in no hurry. We were traveling less than half the distance we had on any other day. Were more more afraid we would miss a campsite by being too early than being too late. Along the way, talk had gone to the topic of food. All sorts of greasy filling high cal foods were named. By the time we reached the portage, the canoes were wet in the bottom from the drool of the canoeists thinking of all the real food.

We decided to have a gorp break and a meeting was quickly convened to discuss a further alteration of our plan. The idea had come up earlier but the though of fresh meat for dinner sealed the deal.

The group had decided 5 in favor and 1 abstaining (me), to cut the trip short and go out early. The only thing up for debate was which route to take. Through some calculation of portage lengths and number as well as miles paddling, they decided to follow the small chain of lakes north of Disappointment rather than through Disappointment. We went to the other portage where we crossed paths with some Scouts.

Our portage went a little better, and so began the zipper of portage, short paddle, portage again. It was quickly apparent by the second or third portage that this was indeed the road less traveled. I was personally grateful for this, as none of the campsites we passed were occupied, thus I was able to conduct 'throne inspections' as I saw fit.

The crew really pulled together throughout the day. The thought of getting out too late to get a good greasy dinner spurred them on. Double packing instead of double portaging, and teamwork to make sure nothing was left behind.

We got to Snowbank. I can't tell you what time. My memories are so jumbled, and sense of time lost. The paddle across those small lakes in my mind took all day, and yet I clearly remember we took a really long lunch break on Snowbank. And the paddle across Snowbank I remember as being long, yet short. It all comes down to this...

We got out in time to get picked up by our outfitter, shower, and get into Ely to eat at a restaurant on the patio, and it was still light outside. I still remember the 2 huge plates of nachos we devoured before our dinner. It was over those nachos that the first kid, bless his soul, said "I'm ready to go back for another week. All I needed was a shower and some greasy food." And everyone agreed.

The kids sat in the lodge late watching a movie and munching popcorn. The next morning they were all up at the crack of dawn, while I was still trying to sleep. Every threat I had used to get them up and moving on the trail was used on me now.

We made our way south, and somewhere north of Hinkley heard storm warnings for Ely and the BWCA. Later that night, we heard the news of the terrible storm that ripped through the BWCA. Were it not for the combination of my Illness, my stupidity, and the desire of the group for fresh and greasy food, we would have been paddling across a large body of water during the July 4 blowdown. And I got a blowdown story without having to have experienced it.

And for all the problems this trip had, it reignited in me a love for the BWCA. I have returned every summer and may someday do the insane and visit in the winter. I have seen the BWCA do it's magic to so many groups since.

I learned a lot on that trip. And of all the trips I've had since, this one of the few I can describe from start to finish.


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