BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
October 02 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 7
Elevation: 1653 feet
Kawishiwi Lake - 37
Loop with Lepus not Lupus
September 20, 2014
Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days:
When we got to Sawbill Outfitters we had Peter figure out how to mount the canoe on my car. I knew the factory racks were too narrow, but Peter had the same solution I had thought of: 2 by 4s. After transferring Steve’s trip gear to my vehicle, we were off to an evening meal at the Trestle Inn. We made it back to my cabin in Silver Creek Twp before sunset to finalize my packs. Steve lent me his extra bear vault to try out on the trip, and we decided to use his gravity filter and Sawyer bottle for water purification systems. We retired early after listening to a little bit of music.
Saturday 9/20/14 Day 1: Oops. My alarm didn’t go off because I failed to pull out the stem. My internal clock was working though. We were only about 1/2 hr behind schedule because I usually wake up by 6am at the latest on workdays anyhow. We ate breakfast, packed the car, and after the 1 1/2 hr drive to EP37 we were paddling Kawishiwi Lake by 9:30am under a heavily overcast sky. That 9:30 launch time became the standard for the rest of the trip. The sun didn’t rise ‘til around 7am anyway.
We decided to take alternating turns at the bow and stern; and Steve was first up at the stern. Locating the bay with the portage to Square proved to be a little difficult since neither of us was using our compass. We became more attentive after that. We also decided who would be portaging what early on.
I found the Pagami burn area very interesting. It began on the north and west shores of Square Lake and ended just as we arrived at the portage bay of Polly Lake. There was a lot of colorful underbrush, and I could tell there had been many flowers blooming earlier in the year. We met one group on their way out on the portage between Townline and Kawasachong.
Polly had people on it, including one group with a constantly barking dog. It did quiet down by the time we had found a campsite. We took the northernmost island campsite since the one nearby on the northwest shore had a note from the Forest Service taped to the fire grate saying “Campsite closed to day (sic), tomorrow, and until further notice.” This was the only night I hung some food since it didn’t all fit in the vault at first. I also survived this cool and overcast day while wearing my 100% cotton cabin clothes.
Sunday 9/21/14 Day 2: This was the first of a string of beautiful days that didn’t end until our canoe trip was over. A threesome in a canoe passed our campsite before we left, but I didn’t see which direction they ultimately headed in. As we paddled towards the portage to the Kawishiwi River, another canoe passed in front of us and headed into a bay. The 30 and 60 some year old males ended up in back of us at the portage, but since they were single portaging we let them pass. Their iciness towards us broke after our third portage meeting when we mentioned our route and its relative remoteness. They were doing the Louse River route. They would be the last people we would see until Wednesday afternoon.
A toe on my left foot began turning hot. Sure enough a blister had formed. To remedy the situation I put nylon socks on under my wool ones. It worked. I could enjoy the scenery of the portages. I did this for the rest of the trip and I wasn’t bothered by blisters again. The last portage along the Kawishiwi River to Koma Lake was nice. There are several huge White Pines and Tamaracks. When the trip was over I checked a logging history map and found we had just entered a part of the wilderness that had never been logged. A beaver dam located just before Koma Lake was a nominal obstacle.
Malberg is a very cool irregularly shaped lake. While we paddled up the northeast arm a Beaver plane flew by going north. We wondered what that might be about. I was getting thirsty and the suction required to get a drink out of Steve’s self filtering water bottle was annoying to me. I dipped and drank from my bottle in the wide bay before the portage into the Kawishiwi River; which at this point resembled a lake. I hadn’t done that for 30 years, but I didn’t do it again. I’m still OK!
Peter at Sawbill warned us about the portage from Anit to Pan. It skirts a beaver pond and the water levels have risen. He said that when he took it he needed to wade in knee to thigh deep water. We paddled down part of the trail and then bush crashed the flooded remainder.
Our campsite on Pan was nice, but came with a persistently nosy Snowshoe Hare. I’d never seen a hare seemingly look for people’s food before. Humm. Its odd behavior made me wonder what really was in the mind of the person who ascribed this lake the name of Pan. I suppose Azazel would have brought up all sorts of less than Romantic images.
Makwa was a pretty lake with rocky outcrops and cliffs, but the cliff jumping tragedy that occurred a couple years before entered my mind. Both Steve and I agreed we wouldn’t be tempted to do anything like that. Well, perhaps that smaller flat topped boulder that stood maybe 5 feet above the water.
I started to become dehydrated this day and was looking forward to getting to Little Saganaga for a layover day. I should have realized this as my lips began to chap and I didn’t have to pee for over 12 hours the night before. I made sure I drank more water for the remainder of the trip.
As we entered Little Saganaga you could see the scar of the Cavity Lake Fire on its north and eastern shores. We picked the campsite on the narrow peninsula jutting from the western shore. It was an above average site in my opinion. There was a nice southerly view and even a small sandy beach not too far from the tent and fire grate areas. A loon swam in the bay out front and serenaded us with its haunting songs. I was glad it hadn’t left yet as most of the trip seemed eerily silent so far. This was the latest I had ever been to the BWCAW and most of the song birds were already gone.
Tuesday 9/23/14 Day 4: We woke to a lake of glass. I sure was hoping for something similar the next day when we were to cross pretty much the entire width of Little Sag. I thought about asking Steve to possibly have a change of plans, but this was the day to rehydrate myself. There were some gnarly portages coming up and not too many campsites between Mora and Kelso.
Our layover day consisted of doing absolutely nothing, and I remember very little of it. Was I abducted by unearthly aliens and my mind wiped clean of it? Yeah right.
The couple things I do remember were the increasingly persistent chipmunks looking for a hand out, and the few lost items we found around camp. Those items include two lengths of cord between 18 and 24 inches, one of which came in handy later on in the trip, and a black shock cord. If they are yours and you want them back sent a self addressed stamped envelope to…Oh never mind.
Wednesday 9/24/14 Day 5: As a tiny bit of light began to illuminate the inside of the tent I could hear a breeze through the trees. Time to get up before the lake gets rough. As the sun rose we were treated to a rainbow! Was this supposed to be a sign? No watery deaths for us this day, for we made it across the lake without trouble.
This travel day was full of pleasant moments, and I was rested and hydrated enough to enjoy them. The portage into Mora followed a beautiful rocky gully. But don’t slip. It’s a drop to jagged rocks. We paddled close by a pair of loons on Mora; one of which had a silvery fish in its mouth. We realized they were parent and juvenile when the one fed the fish to the other. As we paddled by the campsite on Whipped Lake, we saw something swimming. Was it a large beaver? No. It was a small bear cub. As we approached, it promptly turned around and ran up the shore before disappearing into the woods.
When we started paddling down Fente we saw something else in the lake. People in a canoe. Their presence actually somewhat surprised us until we realized that this was an intersection with the Frost River route. When we reached the portage into Hub I waved the couple in. They were from the Madison WI area and were also going to double portage. We should have let them go first since they ended up paddling away on Hub before us anyway. It was the portage that tried to kill me. I made it up the hill with the canoe and traveled maybe 80 of the 300 rods when Balsam branches ripped off my glasses. I had to set the canoe down to catch my breath and I could feel the heat roiling off the top of my head. I could see that not only Steve was concerned about my stress, but also the couple as they passed by us. Steve continued to the other end while I went back to Fente for my packs. Even with just the packs the hill was killing me. Damn cigarettes. I’m glad I quit that habit before it was too late. I was feeling out of sorts when my cap came out of my jacket pocket. Little did I know that so did the compass and MP3 player. I was at the top of the hill when Steve met me going back for his pack. He told me to take it easy and rest on the Hub side because he didn’t want to carry out my dead carcass. Luckily for me Steve found the things I dropped. He also finished carrying the canoe over for me. As we paddled out onto Hub the couple from Madison was nowhere to be seen.
The campsite we took on Hub was located next to a marshy area, and a small island lay in front of it. As we set up camp a pair of loons that were fishing made their rounds; and so did the resident beaver. The beaver must have been annoyed by the presence of its new neighbors since it showed its displeasure with a tail slap. Yep. It sounds just like a large rock being dropped into the lake. Flocks of Canada Geese announced their flight south with honking. A couple of ducks flew by. And just as the sun was setting, another rainbow appeared! How weird. There must have been some mist or something between us and the sun both at sunrise and sunset. It was after that we heard it. An unidentified howl type noise. Was it a wolf on steroids with laryngitis? Usually other wolves respond to calls. Was it Lurch or Andre the Giant’s drunken ghost trying to howl like a wolf? Is Sasquatch real?
This would turn out to be another day with exceptional scenery. Mesaba, Hug, and Duck Lakes were surrounded by hills full of fall colors. It may have been peak for this area. Some of the largest White Pines I had ever seen were scattered about along the portage from Mesaba to Hug. The portage from Duck to Zenith had a bridge crossing a rocky creek bed near its start. The trail ended at the lake on a steep note. All the trails in this section had a deep tread suggesting heavy use in the past, but they were also very narrow and brushy. I was kind of taken aback when I began seeing several culverts on these portages. Have I just not been noticing things like these on the trails over the years? We were also seeing signs of past CCC work like sunken docks, or what have you, at a couple of portage landings.
By the time we got to the camp on Zenith Lake my right foot was feeling sore. My boot was rubbing on the tendon above the ankle bone. Oh Oh. I’ll have to figure something out. We have a 480 rod portage tomorrow. That’s a mile and a half just one way, and we need to double portage.
The campsite itself had a pretty park like setting nestled in a forest of mature White Pine and Aspen. The large population of resident red squirrels chattered constantly and seemed to be engaged in an on and off territorial dispute. The larger tent pad we used was half way down a rocky latrine trail. This night would be the only time we had a small campfire since our tent was located quite a distance away. It was a quick one though because we didn’t want to break a leg getting back to the tent in the dark.
Friday 9/26/14 Day 7: The red squirrels woke about the same time we did and began to go about their work. As I packed my sleeping bag and pad the squirrels dropped sticky pine cones around and on top of the tent. By the time we took down the tent the whole area, including the tent fly, was covered in sap. It was so bad that pine needles clung to the soles of our shoes like thick mud. I kid you not.
After trying out pads and bandages on my sore tendon, I decided it would be better to just wear my tennis shoe on that foot. It may have looked odd having on two different shoe types, but it was the right choice for a long morning of portaging, and it worked. When we got to the portage I told Steve I wanted to take my packs across first to get a feel for the length. I also wanted to scope out landmarks to give myself a psychological boost, so maybe I wouldn’t want to take a rest from the canoe too early. The trail started out uphill and then meandered up and down for the remainder of its length. About half way across there is a wetland and the start of the creek that leads to Lujenida. When you almost reach the end you get to a swampy part. This section was still flooded and the boards to the boardwalk were still floating in the water. We threaded around the area using the same rough route others had taken. I decided I was going to pass the remaining time we were going to have on this portage by listening to the MP3 player. David Grisman, Pink Floyd, Big Star, Limp Bizkit, The Shins, Lenny Kravitz, Heartless Bastards, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, PJ Harvey, The Gear Daddies, Amy Winehouse, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Paul Westerberg, Los Lonely Boys, and the Replacements all helped out on this portage. Steve though helped the most by getting the canoe up the initial hill for me, and then by finishing the carry towards the end; right before the flooded part where I finally had to put the canoe down.
The Kelso River was an interesting paddle and we navigated its passages with no trouble. We stopped at the Kelso Dolmen and both of us decided it could have been easily constructed with levers; and that it was of recent origin because of the sharp edges on at least one of the tripod pieces. We left it shortly after 12:30 and quickly met another canoe with little or no gear heading north. They were an unfriendly pair.
Although we had planned finding a campsite on Kelso Lake, they were already taken. It was pretty early in the day too. I guess the weather forecast was too much of an incentive to take a short jaunt into the BWCAW for people living relatively close. Just after the portage into Sawbill Lake we met a friendly woman out paddling with her 6 to 7 year old daughter (?) in the bow. We checked the campsites on the west bay of Sawbill and those too were taken. We started to resign ourselves to the idea that this might be our last day in the wilderness. Our backup plan was to return the canoe to the outfitters and drive back to Kawishiwi Lake for the night. In my mind I was thinking we might have to set up camp off an old logging road. But as we entered the main lake it looked like we might be in luck. Was the campsite by the portage to Smoke Lake truly not occupied? Yes! Our last night’s campsite was procured. After camp was set up another float plane passed by.
Saturday 9/27/14 Day 8: Steve wanted to linger. I wanted to get going. I hadn’t told him until then but I was concerned about the level of gasoline left in my car. I wanted enough time left in the day to beg, borrow, or steal enough gas to get to either the North Shore or my cabin. Besides, I’d see less people around my cabin anyway and my own personal paradise was calling. OK. So Sawbill Outfitters has gasoline, but at a price. I really had no choice; but damn, some people pay for showers. Capitalism at work I guess.
There were a couple of parties at the dock landing when we arrived. The woman with the young girl in the bow had just launched again too. The canoe was returned and debts settled among an atmosphere more hectic than the prior Friday afternoon.
On the drive back to the Kawishiwi Lake parking lot we saw several grouse. Their hunters too. Steve and I parted ways after putting my gear in my car, and after adding a couple gallons of gas to the tank. He needed to return the canoe mounting apparatus, and a gas can, to Sawbill before heading to Grand Marais. I headed west towards my cabin with cutting the grass and a few beers in mind. On my way I saw many people in the Superior National Forest enjoying the day. Just as I pulled into the driveway of my cabin where a couple of full gas cans were stored, my low fuel indicator lit up. And as I removed the gear from my pack another Beaver plane flew by.
Outro: I’m glad a trip with a relative stranger turned out so well. I learned that no cook, add boiling water only, and rehydrate in a cozy meals work for me. It saved on so much fuel I hardly used any of the white gas in my stove’s reservoir. I still prefer tripping in August when the days are longer and the water is warm enough to swim in though. I think a trip like this in more remote parts of the BWCA can provide relative solitude even in August. However, you have to work for it. I was surprised at the amount of airline traffic I could hear in this area even at night. I’m not the type of person that likes to play pretend when visiting the BWCAW. I just can’t remember hearing so much of it in the past.