Day 1 of 4
Friday, May 26, 2023
The trip started out with an odd start as so many of ours do when looking to make the most of a weekend. The two of us have grown accustomed to late paddling and scheduled to meet up at Kawishiwi Lake at 7:30 after work and a remote drive. After some brief packing and commenting on the newly hatched swarms of bugs, we headed for our entry point at Hog Creek, leaving our shuttle vehicle at Kawish for the finish. We made the water by 8:00 pm after picking up a good amount of garbage at the landing and started making good time down the creek. We lined the rapid set and then it was a portage-free track to Perent. It felt great to be out in a canoe again and this narrow winding creek stretch is where the Royalex Bell Prospector really shines. We pulled into Perent Lake at about 9:30 and started looking for our campsites while groups were still awake, fires were still burning, and headlamps could clue us in to what sites were open. It took a fair bit of back and fourth paddling past six full campsites before finding one without lights. A cautious check found it empty and inviting so we pulled in, had a good snack before bed, and called it a night. The next day would be the true start of our adventure. ~Perent Lake
Day 2 of 4
Saturday, May 27, 2023 We woke up early with a nervous excitement about what lay ahead. Breakfast was a bag of the Camp Chow Energy Boost from Trail Center which has enough calories and protein to motivate anyone to move with purpose. Camp pack-up went quickly and we said goodbye to maintained routes and other groups for the next couple of days. If all went well, the next group we'll see will be Insula. We started paddling up Chickadee Creek. It was already clear that the water had dropped a fair bit already since the start of the spring. We worked as far up it as we could, pulled over a beaver dam, and paddled some more before the creek vanished into the brush. We would travel on foot from here. We portaged into the alder thicket briefly before thinking better of it and turning into the spruces. We noticed something odd after awhile: a cut trail. Not an excellent one by any means, and apparently decades old, but it could be followed for a little while. We would encounter it again off and on throughout the morning. It rarely was enough to follow with plenty of down trees truly and flooding over the old route, but it was interesting to think about the who and the when and the why of the place. We followed a variety of trails for awhile with plenty of stepovers and brushy stretches to bust through. We ended up on the ridge where things were a little more open, cautious to not follow an easy bushwhack too far away from our creek valley which was the lifeline to finding our destination. "Just keep the valley on our left," we were saying. We stopped for our first snack which is when we realized just how bad the bugs had become. When I was out on a guide trip the week before in freezing rain, the bugs were a non-factor. That seemingly changed overnight earlier this week and now they were unreal. Keep moving! In an overly tangled balsam ridge, we turned west and crossed a forested, gravel-bottomed stretch of the creek to the other side, followed a game trail north, and dropped into an open stretch of marsh. I had brought laminated air photos to navigate by since the maps are not all that helpful in an un-routed area and recognized this as the first large marsh that commonly shows up on the canoe maps as the gap between the two creek segments. There wasn't much for paddleable water, but it did provide a brief respite. We turned east again and became stuck in the thickest brush stretch for awhile before pushing back to the marsh and trying to head downstream. This led us to an impassable alder tangle which we briefly pushed through and then climbed the western ridge for a better route. We found another partial old trail on top heading through a few more open areas, again attentive to not turn off too far away from our creek. We descended a steep ridge at the site of water and landed at a large beaver pond. If this is the pond I think we are at, then there should be an old road grade at the end of it.
We paddled most of the way down, portaged the last stretch of floating bog, waded through the remainder, and looked up at the old road grade in front of us. We weren't lost and in fact were right where we had anticipated! That's really cool. This was the road that was part of the old Pow Wow which meant we weren't that far from Chickadee. We portaged over and around the grade and down into the floating spruce bog. We followed a trail through it off and on, hoping it would lead to the lake eventually. Every so often one of us would punch into a mud hole and have to crawl out, but at least the area was more open that things had been. The bog led us into a final brushy stretch. I was amazed to break out of the brush into a wide open lake. We had made it to Chickadee after nearly three hours and 450 rods of bushwhack portaging!
For me, Chickadee was a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions. On the one hand, the first monumental unknown of the trip is behind us. On the other hand, many miles lay ahead and what if we are turned back and have to portage back this way again? That would be incredibly demoralizing. After another snack, we pushed for Fungus. There's not much open water in the first stretch so we found ourselves portaging through the alder tangle again. Once we finally found enough water to float a canoe, there was still a good deal of pushing and dragging to get it through the brush. After more struggling we made the last hurdle into Fungus Lake, the namesake of this PMA. Our first stop would be attempting to find the old campsite on the west shore. It was obvious that the ridge was a pine plantation, and I had the copy of the old Pow Wow trail map to use to try and find the site. I hiked the whole west shore and never found a grate or evidence of a site, but I did find a few old oil cans and coffee cans, poignant reminders of this place's past.
The channel to Whittler goes well until the beaver dam. Thereafter, the creek isn't wide enough for a canoe and requires some pushing and pulling to clear. It's a lot of ins and outs to make it, but we finally hopped through enough channels to hit paddling water in Whittler at 11:00 am with our first view of the Pagami burn for the trip. This would be a familiar site from now on. We took yet another snack on Whittler before taking a water bottle fill up and a deep breath knowing that, once we pass this beaver dam, it's creeks for us for most of the next 24 hours, if we could even make it through.
There were a fair number of down trees after the beaver dam forcing a few more portages. The channel is very narrow this high up and sits deep into the silt so we spent a good deal of time portaging through the open valley alongside, biding our time until floatable water. At times we pulled the canoe along the shallow creek, otherwise we were traditionally portaging. Sometimes we could paddle for brief stretches. After the first beaver dam, we hit our first bitter taste of true burn-zone portaging: jack pines smacking the face, dead-fall pulverizing the shins, crumbling rock threatening to overturn you, and great swarms of gnats impeding one's respiratory function. A few of these would lay ahead before we hit good navigable water. One of the small beaver ponds on the air photo had grown into a nice larger pond. It was amazing to rest in the quiet for a moment. Once we hit the big open valley on the way to the large beaver dam, we heard the familiar buzz of a single-prop plane. This time of the year that had us concerned about the possibility of a wildfire as we knew the risks were high when we left. We wondered what the pilot would think if he saw us this far into the middle of nowhere. When the plane came into view, we were surprised to see that it was not a USFS beaver. The plane was black and white and had tires not floats. We wondered about its mission today. We made good time now that we were finally paddling and lifted over the large beaver dam. Much of the remaining stretch was navigable with only brief pullovers and drag-throughs until we finally reached Andek at about 3:00. Andek is a small, unassuming lake. We wondered how long it had been since anyone had visited here. It seems so far away from everything now. Fittingly, a single crow flew over while we were there. We filled up waterbottles and tried to catch up on hydrating. The weather was sunny and hot and the lack of shade and the rigors of bushwhacking were wearing on us some. Two-thirds down, one-third to go. Out of Andek, there are a few small rapid sets and sections of fragmented creek channel making for frequent stops and slow progress. At one small rapid set, I pulled a portage pack and extras to start a bushwhack and stepped on a bad rock. Down I went landing my lower back precariously atop the rock pinnacle. Ouch! Wet and pretty stuck, it took some effort to go vertical again. We followed this routine of in and out of the canoe, keeping our eyes open for a pond followed by a long straightaway which would give us a sign of our progress. We finally hit a pond but it didn't feel right. Darn, it's the one before the pond with the straight. We pulled off at the very brushy beaver dam and forced our way up the rock face, through the jack pine, before gently working our way down the crumbling west face into the floating marsh below. The grass here was full of garter snakes for some reason as we made our way down the straight past a series of log jams. The stretch after the straightaway is paddleable for awhile until another rocky rapids forced another bushwhack. We got through easily enough. The last long rapids before Maniwaki is a tumbled boulder field with ample brush and no passage. It was up the ridge again for us through another dead-fall rich burn zone. The bugs were pretty horrible at this point as we got through the last couple challenging stepovers and into open water. It was an amazing site to see Maniwaki lake in front of us at about 6:00 pm, some 11 hours after we had started. We paddled over and found the old campsite. Surprisingly, the grate is gone. I'm impressed that USFS hauled this one out! We headed out for some evening fishing just because. I paddled us down to the exit creek where we would head tomorrow morning while Lil' Grumpy fished. No luck on that front, but the waterfall coming out of Maniwaki was an intimidating obstacle to face the next day. Sleep would come easily after dinner. Tomorrow would hold more adventure and more challenges. ~Perent Lake, Chickadee Lake, Fungus Lake, Whittler Lake, Andek Lake, Maniwaki Lake
Day 3 of 4
Sunday, May 28, 2023 The next morning, we worked our way back to the old portage. After locating the rock described in the 1964 DNR benchmark survey, we noted where the portage used to be. As predicted, nothing serviceable remained, and though the portage was gone, the obstacle to portage around was far from it! The water falls quickly out of Maniwaki into a deep, rocky gorge. We tried the creek briefly before turning up the ridge into the thick jack pine stands above. I scouted ahead and hit a couple of dead-end points where the route ahead was too steep to portage safely, especially with a canoe. We slowly managed our way through the tangle, trying to connect the open rocky patches with brief sections of barreling ahead through mangled brush or precarious jungle-gyms of down timber. This ridge sits way above the valley below. We didn't know how long to portage, but we knew the old portage was some 200 rods plus, and if the sound of whitewater below was any indicator, we had our work cut out. We bashed down the face at the most manageable decent we could find, still a tricky obstacle course. We popped out at the creek below the four set of rapids and above the fifth. We paddled a short distance down and started the portage around the fifth on the south shoreline. This beautiful stretch of water is a complicated one to portage as the topography is pretty jagged in the surrounding valley walls. We waded through the stream at a tough point, followed a little further on the north shore before coming back to navigable water below. There are some massive log jams in this section which impede progress downstream and force portages around them. After a few more stretches, we blasted out into the open valley of Hope Creek. A few more push-throughs lay ahead before we pulled into South Hope Lake.
At South Hope, we sat and filled waterbottles and watched a pair of moose for awhile. They seemed to detest the flying critters as much as we did. Forebodingly, they took off right down the rapids we were intending to follow. Figures. Wonder if we'll find them again? The topography around South Hope was nice, more scenic than Maniwaki. We headed for the rapids and portaged briefly on the south shore. There were a pair of swans in the pond which took off at our approach. We lifted over the beaver dam at the end and into Hope Lake. We climbed the 15 ft boulder at the lake and had a snack break overlooking this primitive lake in front of us. In 2019 we took a post-dinner trip back here from Insula during a guide staff-training trip so we had a pretty good idea of what lay ahead. The worst was behind us and we could afford to enjoy this moment.
We paddled down the south shore, pointing out former campsites as we went. It's short portage around the first scenic rapid set on the creek out from here. The second former portage is where we remembered the worst portaging. The old 50 something rod portage went up and over the ridge, thus shortcutting some distance. Following the creek forces a few shorter portages along a longer route. Further on is a single rapid set which once had a short portage. We knew that there was a trail around the final rapids, at least there was four years prior. We were unable to find it at first so we started bushwhacking as we had been. I finally bumped into the trail and we took it to the end.This was a surreal moment. It felt almost as if someone had dropped us into the middle of a BWCA trip. Everything before this moment was new and challenging and difficult, harder than any trip either of us had ever taken by canoe. Everything after this moment was back to a standard Boundary Waters trip with portages and campsites and other groups. It was like two totally different trips joined together by this moment. We savored it as we headed out into Insula right around lunchtime.
Every campsite we passed was open, even some very popular island sites, which seemed strange for Memorial Day weekend with nice sunny weather. The first group we saw was camped at the narrows site heading out of Insula proper. Even Williamson Island was empty. Very strange indeed. We paddled through the back bay to take the portage into Carol as it was a new lake for both of us. Portaging felt oddly easy without any flora smacking one's face and shins. Alice was windy and choppy but we handled it. We pulled into Fishdance in early afternoon with time to spare and recreate. We ended up checking out every campsite and former campsite on the lake, following the perimeter of the lake south from the Alice portage. I ended up paddling a few more miles that night as Lil' Grumpy enjoyed some fishing. It was a uniquely relaxing end to a long and challenging day. We stayed at one of the remote sites in the corner, feasted on a three course meal, and weathered the bugs for another night. ~Maniwaki Lake, South Hope Lake, Hope Lake, Insula, Lake, Carol, Lake, Hum Lake, Alice Lake, Fishdance Lake
Day 4 of 4
Monday, May 29, 2023 The final day of the trip was a long one for mileage, but it just felt good to be paddling again. It was north to River, east to Malberg, before fighting the headwind out the south through Koma, Polly, Townline, Kawasachong, Square, and into Kawishiwi, pulling into the landing just before 4:00. It was a long, hot day, but we made wonderful time now that we were in maintained territory. In looking back on it, this was one of the most physically demanding trips either of us had ever done, and yet we came off the trip feeling pretty good. For all the potential for things to go awry, this trip went incredibly smooth: we were never lost, never incredibly discouraged, and there were never points of wondering if we should turn back. We came back with a feeling of accomplishment in seeing and experiencing a piece of the BWCA which very few people ever do and that is worth something. It was a special trip and simply keeps the gears turning as we dream what adventures are yet to come.
~Fishdance Lake, River Lake, Bow Lake, Malberg Lake, Koma Lake, Polly, Lake, Townline Lake, Kawasachong Lake, Square Lake, Kawishiwi Lake