BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
May 21 2022
Number of Permits per Day: 4
Elevation: 1664 feet
Hog Creek - 36
Kawishiwi to Malberg and out Sawbill via the Lady Chain
May 15, 2014
Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days:
We spent Wednesday night at a hotel in Tofte and made the drive up the Sawbill Trail arriving at Sawbill a little before 8am. After organizing and packing the rest of our gear, we picked up our permit and got a shuttle from Sawbill Outfitters over to the Kawishiwi Lake entry point. We were the first shuttle to Kawishwi of the year for Sawbill. When we arrived one car was in the parking lot, so we claimed we were the second group into Kawishiwi of the year.
On the date of our departure, Sawbill was mostly free of ice but Alton was still iced over but we were hopeful it would be out by the beginning of out trip.
Within a couple minutes of leaving the landing on Kawishiwi Lake, we encountered very light sleet/snow for a few minutes. A fitting start to the trip.
High water levels made for an easy paddle up the beginnings of the Kawishiwi River into Square Lake were we encountered the beginning of the Pagami Creek Fire damage. Last time I was through this area was about three weeks before the fire spread east rapidly to Square and Kawasachong.
Fire damage on the Square to Kawishiwi River portage.
More fire damage along the Kawishiwi River.
Just before we hit Kawasachong, Molly pointed out "that rock looks like a Moose" then added "It IS a moose!" A cow with two calves was back in the woods a little. The first moose I've seen in the BWCA in 21 trips.
After the moose excitement, we paddled across Kawasachong, hiked over some downed trees on the portage to Townline Lake, crossed the portage into Lake Polly, and made our way to the north end of the lake to continue our trek down the Kawishiwi River. It was cloudy and cool, but no rain so we had no complaints.
As we neared the portage into Malberg, Molly spotted a second moose sitting on the north shore of Koma. Unfortunately, this cow immediately got up and walked into the woods with a calf once it noticed us. It was quite the sight when it stood up and walked into the woods. She was massive.
There was an incredible amount of water flowing around the infamous rock between Koma and Malberg.
After one last paddle up Malberg, we decided to camp on the site that sits up above the lake in the narrows just west of the middle of the lake. As we paddled by the campsite adjacent to the portage into the Louse River, we noticed the grate area was entirely under water!
We had a nice night on Thunder. It is such a pretty lake it is a shame to have to leave. The good news is we have two short portages that we cleared yesterday so we can get warmed up nicely before swinging axes using nippers and saws. Better to be warmed up and loose than start out nipping right away. Your back will appreciate the effort.[paragraph break]
We quickly cross Mudhole which is an aptly named lake. It has lots of water in it but it is still obvious why it is called what it is. Gull is a nice lake but not all that exciting, but I hear it holds fish. Too bad it is only Thursday and we have no gear.[paragraph break]
We land at the portage from Gull into Gun which is another short portage. It takes hardly any time to clear this portage and we are onto Gun to paddle to the far end across the north bay to the portage into Bullet Lake. Another rather easy portage and we are to the portage into Moosecamp Lake. At 44 rods this is the longest portage of the day that we need to clear so far. The portage we only walked from Thunder to Mudhole was a little longer but we had cleared that a day earlier. It is kind of nice doing these quick little portages as we continue on. There are a couple of trees to cut on this portage but nothing terribly tricky.[paragraph break]
As we get ready to load the canoe and get onto Moosecamp Lake we discuss if we should stop as planned or continue on. It is not even noon yet and we could stop but we could easily make it down to Fourtown. The discussion quickly turns to how long do we think it will take us to paddle the river? Do we think there will be campsites open when we get there and do we have enough energy? The answers are we feel it will take no more than 2-3 hours to get to Fourtown so we will be there before 4:00, although it is Thursday there should still be campsites-at least at the north end that we could get and after we eat some lunch we will have the energy. We decide to eat some lunch and then hit the lake and into the river and see what is open on Fourtown.[paragraph break] I was really hoping to camp on Moosecamp, but I know I will be back. At least I can say I was here. We paddle the short distance to where the river exits the lake. The nice thing is we are going with the current again and it has some flow to it.[paragraph break] If you have never been on the Moosecamp River you need to add it to your list of places to go. There are numerous logging artifacts in the water that are easily visible. Old Growth pines hundreds of feet long are permanently cemented into the river bottom. There are many eye hooks, chain remnants and other artifacts stuck into many of the logs. It is a nice place to paddle. A short distance along the river we come to the old sluiceway which must be lifted over. In this case the high water is not our friend as finding a safe place to lift over is tricky and we end up going well away from the current and have to walk the canoe through the flooded grassy area. It takes longer than we thought it should but we did it. Even these small accomplishments bring joy to the paddler.[paragraph break]
Moosecamp River we can tell often has numerous Beaver dams and many we see have blown out due to current or with the river being so high are easy for us to find a channel and paddle over. Only one dam creates a problem that we must lift over.
As we get into the area of the river with the high cliffs and hills along the channel the river changes. It becomes lazy-er and more windy. It is still pushing us along however. On the western shore we see a partially eaten moose carcass that must have died recently either killed by wolves or somehow just died or drowned. Joe and I paddle up near it to inspect to see if there are any antlers but none are available. We paddle on.[paragraph break] Soon enough the cliffs become very dramatic and we know we are getting close to Fourtown. It is a little windier today out of the SW so we know Fourtown could be a bit of work to paddle. We leave the quiet confines of the Moosecamp River expecting to see our first people in many days.[paragraph break]
As expected Fourtown is work as we head into a brisk wind. It is not so windy that we need to worry but it is work. We come to the North Bay and look and see that all campsites are open so we decide to continue on. The further south we get the less chance any wind will slow us tomorrow and the less distance we have to travel.[paragraph break]
We come to the next bay that holds campsites and we seem to see a canoe on shore. In some ways it is a disappointment as we now have seen people. As we get closer we see it is not a canoe after all but an ice pile on shore. So we are still very much alone.[paragraph break]
Joe has ever camped on Fourtown so I tell him the sites I think we should shoot for. There is one in the narrows that faces west toward the portage to Boot that I really like. We decide that is where we should get to. The wind has started picking up so it seems like a good idea to stop soon. That and the wind is starting to take its toll on us.[paragraph break]
We get to the campsite and get out looking at the camp and we decide not to stay here. All the tent pads have 3 inches of water standing in them and it just is not a great site due to the water. If it was dry it would be great, but it is very possible it is going to rain tonight so we move on. I know a site around the corner that is huge with large tent pads that are higher and further away from the lake with a huge granite shelf sloping into the water. So far I am amazed that we have seen no one on Fourtown. It is Thursday before the opener and I know the water temps are probably too cold for many, but I would think there would be some fisherman up here. We have seen no ice on the lake and just a little on shore. I kind of think the ice went out of Fourtown on Wednesday based on what we see. It is fun knowing we are paddling the lake the day after the ice probably went out on it.[paragraph break]
We head around the corner to the east and the site is open. From here we can see all other sites to the south and there is no one occupying them. Amazingly enough we have Fourtown to ourselves and it is getting late enough now that I doubt anyone will be coming in tonight. Here we are on a huge lake where most days going forward from here on until September will be completely full of people, all campsites occupied and we have the place to ourselves. I’m not a greedy person, but I don’t mind thinking the lake is Joe and mine for a night.
An even colder night, mid-20s again. After some coffee and oatmeal, we packed up and set off for Phoebe Lake.
Looking back at Malberg.
Selfie at the end of the portage from Koma.
We saw two canoes fishing on Polly as we paddled down to the portage into the Phoebe River. That made 7 people (two groups) spotted since Thursday AM.
While walking through a flooded area on the portage from Polly, we encountered some skim ice. This is the view greeting you as you end the portage and arrive on the Phoebe River.
We made quick time through the four portages leading to Hazel Lake, enjoying the beautiful scenery.
While the Beymer guide describes the portage south out of Hazel as mostly level, I can assure you he must have traveled it northbound because while it's not steep at all, it's a steady uphill for the most of the way back to the Phoebe River.
As we turned back south on the Phoebe where it narrows before Knight Lake, we noticed the high water had the narrows running like rapids. The closer we got to the rough water, we also noticed a down tree blocking most of the channel, making an upstream paddle more difficult. With no good spot to land and no portage, we foolishly tried to make our way up the rapids. Long story short, we eventually got pushed into the downed tree and flipped. I instinctively jumped onto the canoe and we rode the canoe down the current about 20-30 yards before it was calm enough to get out of the water. After pulling ourselves out, we pulled the packs out of the canoe. My paddle, both our Nalgenes, and my light jacket were all on their way down the river. With the gear out of the canoe and on shore, we dumped the water out of the canoe and pulled it up with us. Then we took stock of our own condition. Neither of us had gotten our heads wet thankfully and with the adrenaline flowing, we didn't feel that cold, but we decided to change immediately. I had a couple cuts on one of my knees but we were otherwise ok. Most of our gear in our large pack was dry so we were able to put on dry clothes. We then loaded the canoe, and set off to hopefully retrieve my paddle, which thankfully, was only 50 yards or so downstream. We also got Molly's Nalgene.
It was 60 and sunny and we were now dry, so we decided we were ok to continue on, so we scouted out a way to bushwhack around the rapids, and after 30 minutes or so of hauling, we were back in the canoe and safely on our way to Phoebe.
We saw no one on Phoebe, and pulled into the island site in the middle of the lake a little before 5pm.
A few things were damp so we laid stuff out.
After calming down and setting up camp, it was time to enjoy our last evening of the trip with some reflector oven pizza.
Morning coffee after a much warmer night.
The first 90 rod portage as we moved east back into the Phoebe River was no issue, but the next 5 rod portage required about 5 rods of bushwhacking on each side because of high water. The last two portages were easy with no issues.
As we arrived to the 285 rod portage from Grace to Beth we were greeted by a canoe from another group and a nice pile of snow on the portage. We met the group on their second trip and they informed us the Alton Lake had iced-out the day before and they had spent the last few days waiting it out on Kelso Lake. I warned them about the river/downed tree west of Knight and we finished the portage and ate lunch.
The paddle across Beth was nice with a breeze at our back and we also noticed snow at the east end. As we got closer, we also noticed some ice but we had no problems pulling into the landing. With a nice snow pile off to the side of the portage, we decided to make a snowman.
This portage was in better shape than most we encountered and we were soon headed up Alton Lake, hugging the west shore to stay out of the wind. Once we got to the peninsula south of the portage into Sawbill we crossed the middle and rounded the corner only to be greeted with a wall of ice. Though Alton was 95% out, all the remaining ice had been pushed to the east shore of the lake. A little spooked from remembering the couple found dead in their life jackets on Alton in 2011, I wasn't interested in getting between the ice and waves, so we decided to head up to Kelso and get to Sawbill via the Kelso River. The wind decided to kick up at that moment and we embarked on a scary crossing of Alton but quickly arrived on the west shore so we could paddle out of the wind up to the Kelso portage. The rest of the tripping was uneventful and we arrived at the Sawbill landing about 4 in the afternoon.
All in all, we had a good but challenging trip. We saw two moose, had some really nice weather, covered a ton of ground, and enjoyed our campsite on Malberg. Tipping and our ice detour certainly added a sense of accomplishment to the journey.