BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 03 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 4
Elevation: 1664 feet
Hog Creek - 36
Lady Chain with my lady, August 2012
August 10, 2012
Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days:
My heart started racing when I heard what I swore was a larger creature stirring around our campsite after my 6AM alarm went off. I was almost convinced it was a bear until my wife woke up and considered that it could just be a very loud squirrel jumping on our overturned canoe. Then I heard a big splash in the water! Regardless, the creature was gone by the time I got out of the tent.[paragraph break] It’s very surreal to wake up to a foggy lake that is releasing its summer heat during a crisp August morning. I couldn’t resist snapping a ton of pictures as the fog over the glassy surface slowly melted away as the sun got higher. The paddle out of Polly was one of the most beautiful I have done. The glassy lake and bright sunshine combined with the beautiful northern bays and islands of Polly were pure heaven.[paragraph break] The travel was slow but steady – lots of beaver dams and avoiding rocky waters. It was fortunately another cloudless day and the hazards were easily seen. There were no signs of other people on the route. We made it to Hazel and deliberated stopping for lunch as all 3 campsites were vacant, but after how busy Polly was, we didn’t want to take chances getting a site on Phoebe as it was getting later in the afternoon. We pounded some more snacks and pushed on, not without me missing the canoe with the big pack after the last portage and falling into the water causing some minor abrasions – the only physical mishap on the trip. We were much too hungry at this point to be pushing on, but we were almost there and kept eating peanuts and bars to keep going. Now was the biggest surprise of the trip: not a single soul was on Phoebe Lake. It was so refreshing to have a pick of campsites rather than fighting crowds like at Polly. I wanted a site that had a good vantage point for seeing the sunset and the Perseid meteor shower that was peaking tonight, so we took the site on the southern shore instead of an eastern-facing island site. It was tucked up and away and provided a very secluded experience for us, but yet it had a nice rock landing that you could sit or lay out on and a great view of the sky and the lake’s islands. Phoebe was different in that it had bowling-ball sized shale-like rocks on the shorelines rather than the big bald-faced rocks that a lake like Polly has.[paragraph break] We had another freeze-dried lunch and campshower (my wife was really loving those) and just relaxed. Then came the realization of what turned out to be the very biggest disaster of the trip – I had forgotten my nalgene bottle full of leeches in the water at the Polly campsite, and I was not going to be able to jig for walleyes at this perfect lake for it. Bummer. After our Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai for dinner which was actually very good, we walked along the shoreline to get a better view of the sunset and had some wine. After our backpacker chocolate cheesecake (not as good), I wanted to stay up past midnight for the meteor shower, but again my wife was exhausted from the busy day and we decided to sleep a couple hours and wake up later. At about 1AM, we stumbled out of the tent to the most glorious night sky I had ever seen. We saw many meteors which were very easy to spot before the moon came up above the far end of the lake in a red crescent, which my wife liked better than the meteors. Then, we crashed with the plan to finally sleep in!
We woke up to a warmer, slightly cloudy sky today. It felt great to sleep in and then we made some hot breakfast and had extra coffee. I was very glad that I had gone with Melitta cones for making real Caribou drip coffee instead of Starbucks via instant. My wife offered to go fishing for a while, and we trolled around the lake exploring the islands. Just before heading in for lunch we both snagged a smallmouth, with mine being just big enough to keep and provide something towards lunch. We headed towards Grace Lake, where we were much more confident of getting a campsite on now that it was Sunday night and after how deserted Phoebe was. My wife loved the small waterfalls on the first bigger portage, and we made good time going through the small waterway and portages around the rapids over to Grace.[paragraph break] Much to our delight, Grace was also completely deserted and studded with beautiful rocky islands. We spent a good hour or so just exploring the campsites to pick the perfect one, which we never found. The campsites all left something to be desired, but still were nice, except for the absolute pooper of a site farthest to the southwest that had absolutely no tent pads and was just bizarrely laid out. The islands on the southwest part of Grace are beautiful, so we went with a campsite that faced both the islands and the big open side of the lake. The fire grate overlooked the open water so it was a nice campfire opportunity if the rain held off. I wasn’t expecting a great sunset tonight, but after our beef stroganoff dinner the clouds broke up a bit and a gorgeous sunset lit up. Since we were camped facing east, I talked my wife into a sunset paddle around the beautiful islands and glassy water, taking lots of great pictures. We spotted a beaver that smacked its tail when we got too close, and two huge loons swam by. We made a great campfire using the plentiful spruce and cedar that was down all around the campsite, and we heard the best loon serenade of the trip as the sky completely cleared up. Our campfire was quite a healthy size (but not excessive), so my wife thought the loons were going crazy because there were actually people at their lake having a bright campfire which maybe they weren’t that used to. After my wife had her fill of playing with the campfire and we finished the wine, we called it a night.
We were sleeping in again since it was our last day, but we were hearing light rain on the tent during what appeared to be at about sunrise. This was the first rain of the trip, and I was glad it was on the last day in case we ended up with a soaker and everything got wet. We continued to sleep until we awoke in a very hot tent due to the sun that had reappeared! We really took our time drinking coffee and hanging out because we were in no hurry to exit the wilderness and have the trip end now that the weather was great again. We had another campshower and slowly packed up after eating a ton of breakfast in preparation for the big 285 rod haul over to Beth Lake. The wind was starting to pick up as we started the portage, and I was getting a little concerned that they would make for huge rollers out on Alton later, but fortunately it was a westerly wind and would be manageable since we were heading east today.[paragraph break] I had to dig pretty deep to finish the big portage without setting the canoe down, but I made it and turned around to meet my wife halfway to finish with the bags. My wife decided that portaging was actually one of her favorite aspects of canoe tripping because she has really started to like hiking the past few years and enjoys the occasional break from paddling to rest the arms. Easier to say when the packs are lighter at the end of the trip, though. When we landed on Beth, we heard other voices for the first time in over two days and saw that the first three sites were occupied with base campers – I was thankful for the long portage that separated us from the crowds. We were very glad we resisted the temptation to push on to this lake last night after we weren’t quite happy with the Grace sites. We weren’t sure if we wanted to stop here for lunch or push on to Alton, but the last campsite before the next portage was open so we decided to stop on this beautiful, clear water lake with hilly shorelines. The campsite was perfect, with many tall red and white pines and a cool seating area overlooking the lake, making me bummed that we couldn’t camp here for the night.[paragraph break] We turned the corner to land the portage and saw two older fellows that were base camping on Alton and had hiked the portage to view the lake. We started chatting and found out that they had been canoe camping in the BWCA for 50 years! (Not continuously, every summer that is…ha ha). They were nice enough to offer to each carry a bag for us so we didn’t have to double portage. I only hope I am in good enough condition to match their abilities in 30 years so that I can keep doing this. We shared a couple of stories and pushed off onto Alton to try the wind, which was fortunately calming down some now that it was nearing dinner time. We liked the islands on the south end of Alton and it was pretty easy paddling until we reached the deep open water by the portage to Sawbill. We negotiated the rollers just fine and headed down the runway, I mean portage. The wind blew us gently into the nice new floating dock at the Sawbill landing. We went into the Sawbill store to return the canoe and buy cold beer and some souvenirs. We bumped into Luke, our driver, who asked us about our trip and was glad to hear we didn’t have any bear problems. He was also surprised at how much seclusion we got at Phoebe and Grace. We drank a beer outside the store while reflecting a bit and checking in with our phones with Sawbill’s 3G signal before heading back down the Sawbill trail.[paragraph break] What a great trip! I was under quite a bit of pressure from my wife to get her to fall in love with doing a real canoe trip, but she loved it! She was already planning next year’s trip on the way home. It was great to spend some time away together, and the weather and great solitude we had on this route was perfect. It also stretched us out for how much work we can do on a camping trip, and we picked up some great ideas for next time.