BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 18 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 9
Elevation: 1653 feet
Kawishiwi Lake - 37
My first Solo - 8 Days In and a Rather Tough Exit
June 29, 2018
Number of Days:
My plan was to leave work at 11:00 AM, head home to load my gear and eventually get up to Sawbill Outfitters to pick up my canoe and permit around 7:00 - 8:00 PM then camp at the Sawbill campground and leave early the next morning for EP-37 (Kawishiwi Lake) to and get the on the water around 7:00 AM. Unfortunately, through a combination of self-induced delays and some not of my doing, I didn't get to Sawbill until almost 9:00 PM, so I had to wait until Saturday morning to pick up my canoe and permit.
I tried to text my wife after I set-up camp for the night but my text never went through. I had warned her that there was spotty cell service in the area and that there would be none at all when I was at Kawishiwi and points farther in, so I didn't think it was a big deal. I had an uneventful night at the campground and was excited to get going the next morning.
I woke up later than I should, but it was raining lightly and I didn't want to start out with everything wet. My 15 year old REI Half Dome 4 was still bug-proof and the water-proofing and seam sealer that I had applied a few weeks earlier made it once again water tight. I broke camp, packed up and waited for the rain to clear. I got my permit and my rental canoe from Sawbill Outfitters and got my stuff loaded in the car and headed for Kawishiwi Lake. By the time I got to Kawishiwi and had everything ready to hit the water, it was 2:00 PM!! Now, I was way behind schedule and there was no way I was going to get to Malberg or even Koma until early evening. I paddled through Kawishiwi and up the river to Square Lake while I considered my options. The weather was great and it took me about 10 seconds to get comfortable with the Prism and paddling with a yak paddle.
By the time I got to Square Lake it was evident that I wouldn't even be getting to Polly any time soon, and I was concerned that I might get to Polly so late that finding a campsite would be difficult, so I checked my maps and saw that there were a couple campsites on the south end of Square. Nearly the entire area surrounding the lake was in early burn recovery mode, but the campsite I found (1015) was in a little area that wasn't burned. It was an OK site for just my one tent and for one night, and I had the lake all to myself. I set up camp and did some exploring, eventually heading to Baskatong Lake. The portage to Baskatong was little used and a bit overgrown, and the lake itself was completely surrounded by burn area. It was a pretty desolate landscape and made me glad that I had a campsite that wasn't in the burn area.
I headed back to camp and got a small fire going - just enough for me to cook the brats that I'd brought in for the the first dinner. I ate early and was glad that I had camp already set up when it started to rain. It was a light rain but it was enough to get everything wet. I always prepare for rain so I had everything buttoned up as well as I could and stayed completely dry. I sat around doing not much of anything until it was time to hit the hay.
This was my first test to see if the heebie-jeebies would pay a visit (the night at Sawbill didn't count since there were plenty of people around). Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to an unusual noise - it was a couple wolves howling not too far off in the distance. Then, there was a third howl, much closer to my camp and it sounded different than the first two howls - it was higher pitched and I suspect from a younger wolf. My reaction was "how cool!" No heebie-jeebies; not even a heebie. This would be unchanged for the rest of the trip. I had passed the first big test of my first solo.
By the time I was on the second portage, the gray sky had lowered what had been an occasional light drizzle turned into a light rain. It was definitely tolerable; it wasn't really cold and I was relatively comfortable even though I was getting wet. As I continued with the portaging into Polly, the rain slowly increased in intensity as the clouds continued to lower, but it wasn't anything I hadn't dealt with during past trips and I pressed on.
I got to Polly and loaded up, heading towards the north end of the lake and the set of portages into Koma. As I got about 1/2 way down Polly, the rain had built into a pretty steady soaker. I'd been on trips before where I had seen some very heavy rains that had lasted for hours, and I didn't want to be caught out in one of those if I could help it, so I spied an empty campsite and made for the eastern shore. I think it was #1076, but I can't say much about it other than it was good enough for me to get out of the rain and eventually set up camp.
I was able to unload and get my tarp rigged and I got out my new Moonlence chair (a cheap knock-off of a Helinox) and found it was surprisingly comfortable. I spent the next several hours under the tarp watching it rain even harder. After about 3 hours the rain started to let up, but by now it was late afternoon and it was clear that, once again, I wasn't going to get to Malberg. I set up camp after the rain stopped to keep my gear as dry as possible, and once again made an early evening after a meal of dehydrated sweet & sour chicken. The dehydrated meals aren't too bad, especially when they're so easy to prepare, and clean-up is a breeze.
As usual for this trip, I retired early. The skeets were starting to get more numerous and with no one to talk with, the tent was a nice place to be with a book and an evening bourbon.
I got up and had a breakfast of instant oatmeal, cocoa and a cliff bar. The lack of coffee was not as much of a problem as I thought it might be but still, it would have been nice to have some! I broke camp, loaded up the canoe and paddled to the north end of Polly to the series of portages and short paddles into Koma.
The portages were obviously pretty wet and muddy, but I'd been wet-footing the landings and portages since I started and it didn't bother me too much. The skeets were out and I needed my headnet and long shirt to stay comfortable. I made OK time triple portaging, but was reminded with every carry that I should have packed lighter. Experience is a great teacher!
The paddle through Koma was uneventful but still welcome after the three portages. I was really getting the hang of handling the solo canoe. I tried to stay close to shore whenever possible since it can take a lot of energy to fight the wind. I wish my canoe had been a foot or two shorter and the wind wouldn't have been an issue at all. I passed an occupied campsite on Koma, the only one that appeared to be occupied when I went through.
I reached the north end of Koma in a pretty short time. I don't have accurate times for anything in this trip because I didn't bring a watch, so I made estimates based on where the sun was (when it was visible). The portage from Koma to Malberg was relatively easy, and the rapids at the end were quite cool. That is one big rock there!
Once on Malberg, I paddled north (the only direction I could go at that point) along the east shore until I got to the Louse River. The river was moving pretty fast, but just on the north side of where the river empties into Malberg there was an open campsite (1056) - it was the one I was originally hoping for when I planned this trip months ago. I pulled in and unloaded my gear. It was a fantastic campsite, plenty of open space, plenty of shade, plenty of tent pads and a great kitchen. I felt guilty taking it since I was just a solo, but I hadn't seen anyone else on Malberg or even anyone going in there from Polly.
I set up camp and started to check it out in closer detail when a younger guy (compared to me) came out of the Louse River. He too was soloing and was staying at a Malberg campsite farther down the lake. We chatted for a while, but I never got his name. I think my social skills had eroded from just a few days alone! Although I didn't do anything special on this day, it's one I'll never forget (for other reasons).
I gathered some wood for a fire, then checked the tarp and the tent, then put up a clothesline and rinsed my travel clothes in a Kitchen Sink and hung them up to dry, then checked the tarp and the tent again. It's amazing how one can spend time keeping occupied in the wilderness!
Late in the afternoon I tried a little fishing from shore using a leech with a slip bobber; I caught a hammer-handle northern and let it go. I was tired so I made a quick dinner and then retired for the night. The skeets were out in full force once the sun set, I could hear the hum outside my tent, but I was buttoned up and they were left frustrated.
This was going to be a layover day, and it was just that. I made the decision that I wasn't going to paddle up to Adams or down the Louse River to Trail Lake since I had lost more than a day on the first leg of my trip. I lazed around camp and made breakfast - a bacon omelet using Ovaeasy egg crystals and bacon bits, and a pan of fried cornbread. I had packed some mini-moos as they don't need to be refrigerated so it was pretty simple to use the 1/2 & 1/2 as a milk substitute in the cornbread. I also had some ghee that I used for both the omelet and the cornbread. Those Ovaeasy egg crystals are a great product, they tasted just like the real thing!
I cleaned up after breakfast and saw that there was weather moving in. I made sure everything was secure and went into my tent as the dark, low wall of clouds barreled in from the west. The storm hit suddenly with strong winds (at one point I thought the tent might collapse) and then thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour. I was glad I had staked out the tent and the guy lines, and was extra glad that I had spent so much effort waterproofing my old tent before I left for this trip.
Eventually, the storm passed and it tuned into a pretty decent day. I decided to try a little fishing so I went out in the canoe and fished the current where the Louse River empties into Malberg. That was just south of my campsite so I didn't have far to travel. The river was really running from all the rain of the past few days so it looked promising. I caught a nice eater-size walleye on a jig and leech, and then a BIG bull of a sunnie. It was by far the biggest sunnie I'd ever caught. I figured that it would make a nice dinner along with the walleye so I put it on the stringer. I made repeated drifts over the place where I caught the sunfish and hooked a couple more - both huge! They seemed to be locked into a pretty tight 25' x 25' area just next to a weed bed. They were also pretty good at stripping the bait from my jig.
I was pretty cautious with the fishing as this was first time I'd fished solo from a canoe, and I never got too far from camp. I always remembered that there was no one around for help if anything should happen to me.
I didn't fish for too long, but before I quit I hooked a smallie, about a pound and a half, so nothing huge, but I realized that I had caught northerns, a walleye, sunfish and a smallie - sort of a Malberg grand slam.
I had a bald eagle visit camp, perching on a tree just a few feet away from where the two fish were sitting on the stringer. I eventually put a Crazy Creek chair over the stringered fish to keep the baldie from grabbing them, and he soon lost interest and flew away to the other side of the lake.
I did some unsuccessful fishing from shore and then made a dinner of fried fish. I coated the fish in townhouse cracker crumbs and fried them in ghee. They were very tasty. I cleaned up from dinner and, as was my pattern for this trip, retired early before the skeets got too bad.
I woke up to a sunny, cloudless day, but the wind was blowing like mad from the northwest. There was no way I was going to go out in the canoe solo in that wind, I don't think that I would have tried it even paddling tandem. So I was shore-bound for most of the day; I spent some time reading and some time gathering up firewood. At least with the sun and the wind the clothes I'd hung up the day before (and that got drenched in previous days downpour) had a good chance to dry out.
I explored some around camp. I saw a chipmunk climbing a small "tree" that was full of ripe service berries. I had never seen a chipmunk climb a tree before but they're kinda like mini-squirrels so I guess it made sense.
With the stiff wind blowing most of the day I wasn't surprised that there wasn't any traffic on the lake. In fact, there was really very little canoe traffic on Malberg during my entire stay there. I'm not sure why that was - it's a cool lake and isn't very far from an EP, so I would expect more people to be there, especially during 4th of July week. However, that suited me fine as I was soloing and really enjoyed the solitude.
The wind eventually died down later in the afternoon and I did some canoeing and fishing around the southern part of Malberg. I was getting pretty comfortable with getting in and out of the canoe and with solo paddling in general. One of tips that I got off the BWCA.com forum was to fill a dry bag with water and place in the bow as ballast. That really helped with the stability of the canoe and especially with its tracking when there was wind. What an easy fix!
I had a small fire before it got dark - not for cooking but just for enjoyment. I learned that campfires are much more enjoyable when they're shared, which is another thing I had read (more than once) in this forum. I stayed out until it started to get dark and then made for the tent to dodge the nightly horde of bloodsuckers and called it a day.
A new day dawned in paradise. I got up and made another bacon omelet for breakfast. It was obvious that I had brought more food with me than I needed. I was OK with an extra dehydrated dinner because it's good to have if one gets held over for a day by weather. But there was no excuse for bringing so much lunch food.
I spent the day first exploring the part of Malberg west of camp and doing some fishing. I had a slam from a pretty big smallie right at the boat but it never bit the hook, so it stayed wet. I checked out the campsite that has a beach (1051) - it offered nice seclusion but looked like it could get pretty buggy. I've camped at beach sites before and I'm not really a fan - the sand gets into everything and if it rains it takes forever for things to dry out.
After some exploring on Malberg I headed back to camp to have some lunch. I still had 2 packs of summer sausage, a nearly full jar of peanut butter, a nearly full box of crackers and a large bag of trail mix left in the food bag. For whatever reason, I packed enough lunch food to last 2 people for a week. Anyway, I ate some lunch even though I wasn't very hungry and then forced myself to eat more because I didn't want to have so much food to pack out when I left. I know from experience that my appetite tends to diminish when I'm tripping; someday I'll remember to learn from my experience!
After lunch I headed back out in the canoe to explore the Louse River east of camp, going up to Frond and fishing some on the way. I got no bites but the paddling was easy even though it was against the current. The water was high and I didn't run into any obstacles. The Louse River looks wild and I was kicking myself for not going back to Trail Lake when I had the chance. I'll have to save that for a later trip.
I eventually headed back as the shadows were getting longer and the sun was lowering in the west. I love the long days of the middle of summer, but now, at my age, even those seem to go by in a flash. I reminded myself why I had come up here and savored the moment. I knew that my time in the wilderness was growing short, but I thought of the people I was close to and had recently lost. They would never get a chance to experience the wilderness again, and I was determined to enjoy this life for as long as I was able.
This was to be my last full day in the Bdub and I would spend most of it traveling. I had light breakfast, packed up my gear and made sure that I hadn't left anything behind (including a trace). I hit the water and it was a perfect day for paddling, mostly sunny with just a light breeze. My food pack was pretty light by this time and I was probably a bit stronger than when I went in, so I had trouble double portaging. I made relatively quick work of the portage from Malberg to Koma and the three portages from Koma to Polly.
The traffic was pretty light and up to Polly I saw only one group, that I passed on the portage to Polly. They were single portaging - I wonder if I'll ever get to that point? Probably not, but then it's a wilderness trip and not a race.
As I got to Polly and started loading my gear I realized that I was missing my spare PFD. I knew that I had loaded it when I left Malberg, so it had to be somewhere behind me. I grabbed the canoe and left my packs at the portage landing (out of the way, of course) and retraced my steps. I ended up having to go all the way back to the north end of Koma - there it was, sitting on the portage landing! I grabbed it and headed back south. I must have lost a good 2-3 hours and a lot of energy on that mistake, but I was not going to leave anything behind if I could help it.
I paddled down Polly to the portage at the south end and portaged into Kawasachong, I was getting a little bit beat by this time but I pressed on as the weather was still good. I made it through Kawasachong and into the Kawishiwi River. I pulled over the big beaver dam on the river and kept paddling, but at some point I realized that I wasn't seeing familiar terrain. I followed the river up to a deadfall, paddled around the deadfall and found myself at the base of a rapids. This was completely unfamiliar, but I thought I had to be on the right track because I knew I recognized the beaver dam. Eventually, after a short bushwhack to see if I was near Square Lake, I backtracked down the "river" and came to a junction with another river. It was then apparent that I had missed a 180-degree turn in the river and had mistakenly paddled up a feeder creek that joined the river right at the 180-degree bend.
I followed the turn in the river and made it Square Lake, but it was getting later in the afternoon and I was getting tired, but I pushed on to Kawishiwi. By the time I made it to Kawishiwi, I realized that it would be pointless to continue to my exit since I wouldn't be getting home for another 6-7 hours, and I was pretty wiped out anyway. I paddled across the lake and found an open campsite about 1/2 way down the lake on the eastern shore. I pitched my tent and ate some snack food, but I was too tired to make a proper hot dinner. That was OK because I wanted to be able to pack up and hit the water the next morning without much hassle. The horse flies were horrible, and then the skeets started to make an appearance. I took shelter in my tent for the rest of the night, read some and spent some time with the Old Grandad (on day 8, even budget bourbon tastes pretty good!).
I woke up to a sunny day with just a light breeze, perfect for an exit day (OK, as perfect as an exit day can be; I would much rather have been going in than coming out). I packed up camp and a made leisurely 1/2 hour paddle to the landing, not being in any hurry to hit the finish line. I loaded up the canoe and gear into my car and said goodbye to the Bdub.
The drive to Sawbill Outfitters to drop off my rental canoe was almost uneventful, at least until I pulled into the parking lot. I heard my cell phone ping, so I finally had some reception! There was a text waiting from my wife, sent on Monday (just 2 days after I entered and 5 days before I got it), informing that my mom had passed away. That was a gut-punch! Although she was 87 and frail, I was shocked. I spent the rest of my drive back to the Cities second-guessing my timing of this trip, as it gave me no opportunity to tell her goodbye, that she was a great mother and that I loved her.
It's been a good six weeks since my trip ended, and having had some time and distance to reflect on it, I came to the following conclusions:
1. I really like solo tripping, even more than I thought I would.
2. I have enough skills to know how to survive comfortably in the wilderness.
3. I have enough sense to not put myself at risk when there's no one around to save my ass.
4. I took this trip in part to give me some time and solitude to reflect on the loss of my sister in late February and my former tripping partner in mid-June. But I was reminded that wherever one goes, life still goes on.
5. Although I miss my mom, I know that she lived a long life that wasn't filled with hardship. She was happy to end (I was told) and passed away in her sleep. There are certainly worse ways to go.
P.S.: I feel like I must be living a country music song - I had to put my dog down last night!