BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
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!
Then a photo opp with the resident moose skull.
We headed off on a day-trip into the Kawishiwi north of Malberg and first stopped to check out the raging water flowing out of Malberg into the Kawishiwi by the northeast portage.
A nice afternoon to enjoy the view from our campsite.
Brownies for dessert.
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.