BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
June 06 2023
Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Exhaustion 101: My Frost River solo.
May 12, 2008
Number of Days:
My luck could not have been better...Sawbill is calm! I push away from the landing at 6:45, beginning the long paddle north on Sawbill. Dipping a paddle in liquid glass is a wonderful thing. All I hear are the sounds of the forest and water rushing past my canoe.
I reach the portage to Ada Creek. Easy portage (of course, it’s only number one, and I'm fresh). A brain fart occurs immediately.
Before I know it, I blow by the portage to Ada Lake and paddle north into the marshy abyss (see navigation skills comment above....hahaha). What a great start! That goof costs me about 15 minutes. Boy, glance away from the map for just a minute... The portage into Ada Lake is unmemorable.
Paddled across Ada and arrive at where the portage to Skoop Lake should be. What portage? Due to high water I’m able to paddle almost the entire 110 rods. As I cruise along, I look to my left and see walkway planks partially submerged. Only about 8 rocky rods make up the portage now.
I had read that the 180 rod portage to Cherokee Creek crosses the Laurentian Divide. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected.
Reaching the creek put-in I meet what seems to be a father/son tandem. We exchange hellos and get back to work. As I begin to load my canoe I hear an “OH SHIT” coming from my right. Turning to look, I see a Bell Whitegold flying toward my head. It misses me but crashes down onto my Wilderness. No damage done, other than his pride. He was trying to shoulder his canoe in the shallows. One of his feet sinks in the mud, he loses his balance and throws it off. Apologies follow. He then empties the water and pulls it to dry land to try again. Still loading my canoe I hear “F*CK!!!!!”. On his second try the portage yoke screws pull thru the wood gunwale. He tells me he knew they were a little rotted but thought they would be fine. I had nothing in my repair kit that would have helped, and told him that. I continue on my way. I pity them...having to hand carry that canoe over the portages back to Sawbill.
The paddle across Cherokee is beautiful and pleasant. One short portage later I’m on Gordon Lake. Paddle to the Unload Lake portage. I must be tired by now because this 140 rod really kicks my butt! I’m walking thru quite a bit of snow on portions of the trail and notice a very colorful type of fungi on the side of a tree. I cross Unload and I’m at the Frost Lake portage. With these water levels, luck is on my side again. I'm able to paddle the entire 40 rods, pull over one beaver dam and splash down on Frost Lake! It's 2:15. I land at the second site on the north east shore. It’s great to be “home”.
The fire area at this site is the best I have ever seen anywhere in the BW. Camp is made.
It’s now 3:30 and it begins to snow. I think “wow, another typical May trip for me”. None of my May trips would be complete without at least a few snow flurries! By the time this snow stops it's about a one half inch accumulation.
Now, focus firewood. Grabbing the compass, the Sven saw and safety glasses I head back into the woods. I really wouldn’t have needed the compass...I can just follow my tracks in the snow back to camp.
Prepared some chili mac and chowed down. Mixed a cocktail and sparked the fire. Fittingly, it begins to snow again...
13 miles. 6 portages. 4.5 miles on foot...3 miles with gear, 1.5 miles empty.
I sleep in bigtime this morning (9:00)...no doubt due to the combination of exhaustion and EC/lemonade (plural). It’s a warmer morning and most of the snow that fell yesterday has melted away. The sky is a thick, dark blanket and a gusty east wind blows. Today will be a layover day on Frost Lake.
I walk the beach for awhile but couldn't find a single seashell. :) Moose sign a plenty though. It’s a gorgeous crescent of sand west of camp. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to stay here during the warm water season. I envision a Corona ad.
The wind calms about 1:00 and for the first time I can hear water rushing out of Frost Lake. This is one instance when I love the way sound travels up here. I can muster no motivation to go fishing. It seems as though I’m just content sitting quietly and thinking. No, I didn’t say drinking, I said THINKING. :)
At 2:00 it begins to rain. I watch a pair of tandems paddle westward. It will end up being the first and last time I see them on this trip.
Dinner will be Mountainhouse Lasagna...yummy.
7:00. Now Frost is capping with a stiff south west wind. Its really cooling down now as I can see my breath.
I go to bed a bit concerned about tomorrows lake crossing. If this blows into the morning I’m definitely in for a work out. I set the alarm for an early out. My idea all along has been to split the Frost River paddle by camping on Bologna. I will plan on that destination.
The alarm goes off at 5:45. The lazy layover day did my muscles no favors. I’m very sore and stiff this morning.
I’ll be packing up wet...oh how we all love that. I break down camp fairly fast and head across a much calmer lake than I saw last night. Arrive at the Frost River portage at 6:45. The 130 rod portage is a real wake up call. It takes me awhile to get loosened up and in a portaging frame of mind again.
Finally, I’m on the Frost River! The short paddle/portage routine begins and time blurs. The river itself is mostly narrow but many stretches open up into a wide, weedy wetland. It’s beautiful yet bleak. Bleak, because the hardwoods have just begun to bud and the long grasses are still brown. The only green visible right now comes courtesy of the conifers.
I paddle into Chase Lake. This is the jump off to Bologna. For all these months that has been my plan. I glance at my watch...it’s only 9:30. I can’t possibly stop now.
At this point, the trip goals change dramatically for me. I had originally expected this trip to go six, maybe seven days.
I decide to push myself...to find out what I’m really capable of. Both physically and mentally. This trip will now be a baseline. A reference point to look back on for future trip planning.
I paddled up to the Pencil Lake portage. Along this 65 rod trail, water cascades over many rapids. At some points along the trail the sound of rushing water is almost deafening.
The river stretch immediately below Pencil is my kinda river paddle. Intimate, twisty, shallow and clear. I love being able to see the river bottom as I quietly glide overhead. A pair of Whisky Jacks follow me for about ten minutes..leapfrogging each other along the way. I enjoy their company.
Paddle...portage...paddle...portage...paddle portage...the pattern continues.
I reach Afton Lake. It’s a pretty one with tall rock formations. As I approach the portage to Fente I can now see why I have sharpied “very steep” on my map. The pictures I took of the approach and exit do not do justice to the vertical that is really present. I finish this goat path and paddle up Fente. In no time, I hear rushing water again. The first narrows of the lake form a chute and the water is really plowing thru. For a second I consider running it...then I come to my senses. I will not take the chance. A short carry and I'm back on the lake.
Now comes the fun part. The 340 rod to Hub Lake. I’ve done a 320 a couple of times before, but never this late in the day and never this tired. The river stretch wore me out. I’m not looking forward to this one. Especially when I have “big steep, first 80 rods” written on my map.
As I begin the first carry I think to myself...”is this some ones idea of a cruel joke?”. It is a thigh burner for sure. It takes me 1:35 to get everything across. Loaded up yet again I paddle to the NW site on Hub. At this point, its good enough. Hell, a gravel parking lot would have been adequate right now.
It’s 4:20 and I’ve just finished the most difficult, grueling day of my canoeing life to date.
I’m exhausted but things need to get done. Pump water. Get these sweat soaked Trekkers/Brookies off...AHHHHH! Fantastic portaging footwear no doubt. As fantastic though, is to take them off at the end of the day. A cold lake water wipe down (me). Cover a small blister. New “undapants” and t-shirt. Dry socks and boots. I feel alive again! Camp is set up.
This trip has really driven home the point of how much harder a solo trip really is. Reaching camp tired with all this work yet to be done....alone.
A pair of loons have been eyeing me for quite awhile now. I suddenly notice why. They have a nest on a scrubby little island about 60 yards out in the lake.
Peregrine falcons are nested behind me and from the sound of it, they aren’t very happy about my short visit.
The wind has died and the lake is calm. I will have a small fire tonight.
I prepare some Mountainhouse beef stew. God awful crap! I barely eat any of it. It's the first meal from them that I don't like. "Don't like"...now THAT'S an understatement.
This camp site strikes me as old and not used very often. The sitting logs around the fire grate are on the ground now and rotting away.
It’s a loud evening. Spring peepers, birds, and loons are all very vocal right now. It's music to my ears. I can also hear water rushing into the lake from the marsh beside camp. I happen to glance over to my canoe...overturned and tied off for the night now. She’s not a virgin anymore.
I'm normally a "roaring fire" kinda guy but tonight, I think I'm enjoying these little flickering flames as much as any campfire I have ever had up here before. Throwing birch bark in the fire...just because I can. Birch bark...my kinda fireworks. Time to sleep.
ONE HELL OF A DAY!
10 miles. 16 portages. 6 miles on foot...4 miles with gear, 2 miles empty
At 6:30 I awake to this odd bright light. The sun! It’s a gorgeous morning. The woods are alive with sounds again. I plan to be packed and on the water by 10:00...shooting for the one site on Zenith Lake.
For the first time on this trip I wonder what has happened in the world over the last few days. I don’t dwell on it for long though.
Once again I’m stiff and sore. I take my time breaking camp this morning. On the water at 9:30. A strong west wind is blowing now. The 195 rod to Mesaba Lake is practically flat. At this point, I really needed a level portage for once. The 80 rod to Hug Lake and the 90 rod to Zenith Lake are both uphill hauls. I hit Zenith at 1:00 and per usual for this trip, I decide to push on and tackle the monster.
480 rods! Its turns out to be a very tough up and down struggle. Just when it looks like I'm in for some level ground...boom! Another uphill. This theme repeats its self over and over and over on this portage. I’m able to take the gear pack across the mile and a half non-stop . The canoe/food pack carry is another matter. On three different occasions I have to drop the canoe and pack to take a break. The pack straps and portage pads are really killing my shoulders. A portage this long is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. At some point while carrying the canoe and food I decide to stop looking so far ahead. I pretty much carry head down now...only viewing about forty feet of the trail at a time. It helps to not know what's in store for me. The torture ends after two hours and twenty six minutes. Glad it’s over. After that one, the rest of the way out will be a piece of cake, right? Not exactly....
I cross Lujenida Lake and enter the Kelso River. Kelso becomes a huge, wide expanse of still dormant, yet beautiful wetland. I paddle into Kelso Lake. The wind is strong now, straight out of the south. Reaching the 10 rod portage to Alton I begin to worry a little. I leave the gear and go across to take a look. Yep! Just what I figured...Alton is rolling. OH CRAP! It didn’t look too bad down the western shore so I get every thing over and hit the water. I paddle down to that little peninsula almost directly across from the Sawbill portage. I sit in the calm of that peninsula and pondered the situation for quite awhile. There were white caps...but it wasn’t solid white caps. I consider the water temps. I consider the width I would have to cross. I decide I can do this...if I take my time and not get sideways. I begin the crossing. I end up ferrying the entire width. Water breaks over the bow twice. scary at times, but not as bad as I thought it would be.
Portage into Sawbill. Short paddle to the take out. The trip ends.
10 miles. 7 portages. 8.25 miles on foot...5.5 miles with gear, 2.75 empty.
ONE AWESOME ADVENTURE!
It taught me a lot about myself. One thing it taught me is that I’m out of shape. It also taught me that the right attitude can over come a great portion of that. :)
I lost 10 pounds...that tells me I need to eat more when I'm up there.
Wool gloves and a stocking caps are golden.
A 16 ounce Nalgene tent pee bottle is not adequate. :)
A 2.75 pound camp chair is well worth the extra weight. (I knew that already though)
Mountainhouse beef stew SUCKS. (didn't know that)
Mountainhouse chili mac ROCKS...as does the lasagna. (knew that)
It IS possible to be too tired to want a cocktail.
It is ALSO possible to be too tired to want to fish.
This was definitely not my last solo. Not in the least. I will soon begin planning one for this fall...one with a little more paddling. Hahaha