BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
May 29 2023
Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
The Celebration Trip
August 31, 2009
Number of Days:
The entire week prior to our trip we had a wonderful time staying at a cabin near Ely with our six-year-old granddaughter, thanks to the generosity of some amazing friends. We enjoyed many beautiful days during that week, and memorable experiences: time at the International Wolf Center, an overnight campout at a Forest Service campsite on East Twin Lake, a very chilly swim (just Spartan2 and Anna) in East Twin Lake,
an afternoon at the Dorothy Molter Museum, the open-air concert of Pat Surface and the Boundary Water Boys (Anna now has quite a crush on Pat), a visit to Moose Track Adventures to play with the children there, and a lot of great relaxing time, too.
Then our daughter picked up her daughter, the cabin was suddenly very quiet, and we packed up our gear for the canoe trip. This was to be six days in the BWCA, a treat for us after last summer when Spartan1 was hooked up to a machine every night for nine hours for his peritoneal dialysis. It has been a tumultuous year, with a kidney transplant in January, participation in a six-month research study for a new anti-rejection medication, and quite a few bumps along the road. We felt very thankful to be loading our car with camping gear once again and we went to bed early, anticipating the next day. I slept surprisingly well.
We left the cabin at 5:51 AM, just at first light, and headed for Ely to have breakfast at Brittons. This didn’t seem to be an original idea for canoeists, and since we had heard about the great breakfast fare here from some of our friends online, we weren’t surprised to see the lineup of canoes outside the door shortly after six in the morning.
I thoroughly enjoyed a half-order of the famous stuffed hash browns, and was grateful that I hadn’t given in to the temptation to go full order! At 7 AM we were on our way to Sawbill Lake to start our canoe trip!
The ride to Sawbill is a long one, on good gravel roads through very remote backcountry forests dotted with lakes along the way. It’s a pleasant drive.
We arrived at 9:15, picked up our permit, watched the obligatory video, and readied our gear for packing into the canoe. It was 58 degrees, with bright sun, and promising to be a beautiful morning. Neil had to make a quick trip back to the car for the foam gunwale pads, and by 10:40 we were paddling off on Sawbill Lake, pursuing a group of common mergansers for a photo.
I had already named this trip “Celebration” because last year Neil was doing peritoneal dialysis and we were wondering if there would ever be another canoe trip in the BWCA. No matter how much of an adventure we were able to do this time, just being here in this place was a major cause for joy! Unfortunately, lower back pain was making me wary of long portages, so we had an easy itinerary planned on our short six-day stay; even so, the promise of a great weather forecast and the sight of the blue sky and the even bluer water lifted our spirits as we approached what turned out to be our busiest portage of the trip.
There were two other canoes going our way, and one coming from Alton. We managed to make the portage with no problems, and were soon on our way south on Alton Lake, which has clear water and seems to be a loon habitat. We paddled to the south arm and took a campsite at noon. Neil thought we were stopping for lunch, and I did too, initially, but somehow I got the impression that he wanted to camp early (and he thought I was the one who was ready to stop) so we ended up making camp before either of us really had intended to do so! At any rate, it was a good campsite. It didn’t look that great from the shore, but it opened up into a huge site, with a big back “bedroom” nicely sheltered from view of the canoes on the lake, to give a good feeling of privacy on a busy lake. The cover was tall pines and poplars.
At lunchtime we had a temperature of 64 degrees, a lovely breeze, and a clear, sunny sky. I found that this bright sun would be a real bane for good photography for the duration of the trip, and many times would be wishing that I had carried a diffuser for nature shots. Case in point: the huge bald-faced hornet nest on the biffy trail (almost basketball-sized) that was in dappled sun for most of the day. I sat and watched the hornets come and go for a good deal of time. They were pushy little creatures, trying to enter and leave the nest two at a time. It was somewhat daunting to have to walk by this domicile on the way to the pit toilet each time, but we soon got used to it, and we found that as long as we didn’t disturb the hornets, they took no interest in us at all. Whew!
It was very quiet all afternoon. Neil read his book in the tent and I wandered around taking photographs and also spent a bit of time leaning against a tree with book in hand.
For our supper we had a campfire and we ate the old traditional “steak and oranges” first night meal, something Neil hasn’t been able to enjoy since the kidney disease started up in 1992. We didn’t grill the steak on the grate, but cooked it in a pan; even so, it did seem like a “blast from the past” to go back to a tradition from so long ago! To accompany this, I tried my luck baking in the jello mold oven. Our corn bread cooked surprisingly quickly and was a tasty treat.
The sunset wasn’t spectacular, but now in retrospect it was probably one of the better ones of the trip. I photographed the tree by the water in the warm light and we enjoyed the lovely evening. Bugs weren’t bothersome, loons were calling, and the evening started to cool from sixty degrees at about 8 PM. The water was completely calm.
I was awakened at 2 AM by the sound of wind and waves, and went out of the tent. The moon was bright, and it was a beautiful starry night.
We were awake at six to the sounds of loon calls and laughs. Such a beautiful way to start the day! The sun was already up in a clear sky, and there was a breeze, so there was no mist on the lake. The temperature in the tent was 49 degrees.
I was pleased to have slept well, and to realize that I am going to like my new Big Agnes sleeping bag. It has an integrated pad, which means that when I roll over in the night (which I tend to do often, unlike Neil, who is a quiet sleeper) I don’t have to worry about rolling off the pad. A huge improvement!
Breakfast was hearty: Scrambled fresh eggs and bacon, hash browns, Tang, hot chocolate, and coffee. Over breakfast we had quite a conversation about the wisdom (or not) of going down to Wonder Lake. I really wanted to do it for a variety of reasons, primarily the chance for solitude and to see more wildlife, but in the end we decided that my lower back pain just made a 200 rod portage too much of a risk for me, and that it probably wasn’t really a wise move for either of us on this particular trip. Neil scoffs at my concerns for him, since he is feeling very well, but he hadn’t done any real physical conditioning for this trip, and I did think starting out with a 200-rod carry might be a bit much for him, too.
At any rate, we decided to head up to the north end of Kelso Lake and try a day trip on the Kelso River. We broke camp around 9:30 and prepared for another short day of paddling. As we were doing so, three canoes floated by. This was the largest group of canoes we were to see for four days.
Soon we were on the water. We stopped for a drink and snack break at the first campsite after crossing the lake and I took a few photos there. It is a lovely site in a grove of massive cedars, another very large and overused one. It has a huge square of logs around the fire grate. We were dismayed to find that the previous campers had left significant garbage thrown under one of the trees. After photographing the evidence (several pieces of very nicely breaded and fried fish fillets and an entire bagel, among other crumbs) I picked it all up and we packed it with us for six days in our trash bag. Did a bit of grumbling about that, I did! :-(
The wind was picking up significantly as we started out again, but it soon died down and we had a wonderful paddle up beautiful Alton Lake in calm, crystal-clear water. We followed the western shoreline and I had fun photographing two different loons and a group of common mergansers. We saw two other loons also, and no other canoes.
The portage to Kelso Lake is 13 rods long, short and easy. There isn’t a very good put-in, as it is rocky everywhere, but of course that is to be expected.
We put in to Kelso at noon, and enjoyed a pleasant paddle up the lake in bright blue water. True to the pattern for this trip, we saw no wildlife, and no other canoes, either. There was no one at any of the campsites.
We took the northernmost campsite, which is very secluded. It has two obviously manufactured tent pads, made with logs and planks. This is something I don’t ever remember seeing, at least not as obviously man-made as these were. The site was aflutter with orange comma butterflies, and all during our three-day stay I had fun seeing them, stalking them with the camera, and trying to be careful not to step on them. The fire grate is behind a big boulder that is stained with soot from the campfires people have built OUTSIDE the grate area (why?), and the biffy trail is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen—a lovely trail up the hill in a most picturesque section of woods, with the “throne” out in the open for a panoramic view! And a still life with a beautiful brown mushroom to enjoy as you sit, should you want to sit and contemplate.
One very pleasant surprise was that we found ripe blueberries on the biffy trail. We had expected it to be too late for the berries, so we set ourselves picking enough for blueberry pancakes for tomorrow’s breakfast.
We saw no people this afternoon. I spent the afternoon photographing, mainly some macro work, and chasing the butterflies. It was 70 degrees, breezy, and with a clear sky.
The butterflies are camouflaged well when they are closed. They blend right in with the dry leaves, pine needles, and twigs on the ground, and it is almost impossible to see them:
Then they begin walking along:
And suddenly they are basking in the sun:
I know it is a lot more interesting to see photos of big bull moose-- but this year we didn't have a single furry creature, large or small, to photograph on the entire trip! Frustrating, but nevertheless, true. So I had to satisfy myself with God's small creatures.
We had our supper cooked on the stove this evening, Mountain House beef, potatoes and onions, Mountain House green peas, and some dried apricots for dessert. And, of course, coffee and hot chocolate. Neil remarked that the water in this lake is more tannic (has a dark, yellowish-brown color); I remarked that I missed the loons. He thinks it is because the lake is shallower and there may be a different kind of fish. For whatever reason, we never saw or heard loons on Kelso during our stay.
We hurried to get our tasks done by the early sunset hour of around 7:30 PM. Short days! We are accustomed to tripping in June and we really noticed the difference.
I awoke at 6 AM, turned over in my warm bag, and then awoke at 7 AM, wishing I had gotten up at 6, since I almost missed the misty morning! At seven it was very damp in the tent and 43 degrees. The mist was fading quickly outdoors, so I clicked off a couple of disappointing shots and got on with the breakfast preparations.
It was 48 degrees outside, sunny, with the always clear sky. Our wild blueberry pancakes were delicious! We had them with a side of over-easy fresh eggs, Tang, coffee and hot chocolate. Yum!
We left at 10:50 for a day trip north on the Kelso River. There were multiple butterflies flitting around our sunny campsite as we paddled away, it had warmed to 60 degrees, and a few white puffy clouds were coming in on a slight breeze. A very promising weather situation, indeed! :)
The river is beautiful. It is wide and winds up to the north, with rocks and river grasses, rice, pitcher plants, a few beaver lodges, some meandering side areas to get lost in, a few picturesque snags and occasionally a bright group of leaves showing just a touch of autumn color to catch the eye. We stopped to photograph a water lily and were surprised by a group of five or six otters coming up the river behind us, but of course they beat a hasty retreat when they saw us—no photo possible! There were lots and lots of large green and blue darners flitting about (dragonflies) and none of them were cooperative about lighting to pose for my eager photography either.
We ate our lunch on the shore of Lujenida Lake, at the end of the 460- rod portage from Zenith Lake. I stalked and photographed a large fritillary butterfly, a small damselfly, and a red dragonfly, and photographed a group of green reeds that were waving in the breeze. Still longing for some “real” wildlife!
We paddled back quietly, checked out a neighboring campsite and decided we didn’t like it better than our own, photographed ours from the water, and then noticed that our puffy clouds were gone and we were back to the clear sky yet again at 3 PM. A beautiful summer afternoon, low humidity, and breezy. A mourning cloak butterfly was waiting for me on my camp stool when we arrived back at camp, but it wasn’t cooperative about staying around to keep us company. (They are usually shy, not friendly like the commas.)
Our supper consisted of Cache Lake Chicken Stew with the Really Tasty Dumplings. In my opinion, not worth the long cooking time and the messy pot to clean up afterwards—very salty! I made a chewy cooky bar recipe in the jello mold oven and, while it turned out more the consistency of a cake, it was tasty. We retired early as we planned to get up early for a river trip to scout for early morning wildlife.
It was cool (48 degrees) and misty at 7:15 when we pushed off for our morning river trip. We had arisen at 5:45 and had a quick breakfast of oatmeal, Tang, hot chocolate and coffee, and rinsed out our cups hurriedly so that we could be on our way. As I was paddling along and feeling too cool, it occurred to me that it would have been a perfect morning to try out my new Smartwool shirt purchased on sale at Canoecopia last spring.
We enjoyed a very calm and peaceful paddle, but again, saw no wildlife. A few ducks startled and flew away, quacking at us for disturbing their solitude. There were, again, many large green and blue darners. We traveled slowly to the lake, and stopped to photograph some spider webs in the river grasses that were lit up by the morning sun. It always amazes me when they show up in the misty dew—they are there all of the time, of course, but we are only allowed to see them when the conditions are just right! Such a miracle of construction! And Neil is so patient to maneuver the canoe so that I can photograph something as tenuous as a spider web suspended in the air and get everything in focus. It isn’t an easy task!
We stopped again for a break at the portage site, and then paddled back, taking a side trip down the branch of the river that heads to Steak Lake. I was most disappointed that we were unable to make it all the way to that little lake, but a 90-degree turn in the river blocked our passage. At that point we stopped to photograph a fisher spider on the water, and then we backed out until we could turn the canoe around, and we headed back to our campsite, arriving shortly after 10:30.
Does anyone know what this flower is?
I fixed a pot of Shore Lunch Chicken Noodle Soup (1/2 envelope) for lunch with our cheese and crackers and dried fruit. It was 74 degrees at lunchtime, with some clouds moving over us. We cleaned up some lunch leftovers, and then relaxed around camp for the rest of the day.
Fall is just beginning to make itself evident in the north woods. The maples are starting to blush in a few places, the mountain ash trees have clusters of bright orange berries. The bunchberry plants have their characteristic groups of red berries, and the little purple asters are among the few flowers still in bloom. The white- throated sparrow must be gone—we have haven’t heard a single call. (And how I do miss them!)
I sat and read in the shade on my camp stool and a comma butterfly came and rested on my arm for a little while.
Off in the far distance, some canoeists paddled by, then suddenly one person stood up in the bow of the canoe and dived into the lake. He swam for a few minutes, then got back in the canoe, and the stern paddler did the same thing. They laughed and swam for a short time and finally continued on their way again. Shortly thereafter we heard voices at the neighboring campsite and it became obvious that a couple had stopped for a swim there. We could see two heads out in the water and hear them laughing. I considered going for a swim, but hadn’t brought my water shoes, so I abandoned the idea and went back to my book.
This is a very secluded site. We saw one canoe on the river trip yesterday, and the few people swimming in the distance today, and otherwise no people for the two days.
I photographed a brown dragonfly, explored the little bay to the side of the campsite, and marveled that the two red squirrels that scurried through behind me had never visited the site to beg for food at any time.
We cooked our supper on the fire this evening. As it always does, the smoke managed to find its way into my eyes. Neil had set up the tarp, which was nice for keeping out of the sun for at least part of the time. We had a supper of Mountain House Chili Mac (one of my favorites), Mountain House sweet corn, and a delicious chocolate cake from the jello mold oven, along with our usual beverages. It was about 78 degrees, partly cloudy, and a lovely evening. More humid than previously, so it felt more summer-like. The flies seemed to like the smell of our chili mac, but they weren’t biting, just hanging around.
After enjoying a few of Neil’s always perfectly toasted marshmallows, we took the canoe out for an evening paddle. What a delightful time! A beaver slapped his tail at us, then swam across the end of the bay, so we followed him, to be rewarded with another hard slap! The sun set in a light orange glow to the west and the moon, nearly full, rose in the east. The lake was in complete silence and dead calm as the air cooled around us. I took this photo of the moon from the canoe.
We came back to camp at 8:20, and settled in to our little tent home where we found it to be 60 degrees. We read for a short time by the light of our headlamps and settled in for another quiet night.
Another beautiful calm morning, very peaceful and quiet. We found ourselves sleeping in late—just beginning to stir at 7 AM. It was 47 degrees in the tent and 50 outside. I sorted through clothing to find clean socks, changed into clean clothing, and crawled out of the tent at 7:30, to find the mist all gone and Neil tending a nice fire under the bright green tarp. We enjoyed eggs, bacon strips (I surely do appreciate the precooked bacon) and a Bisquick bannock cooked in the frying pan for our breakfast. All of this accompanied, of course, by the ubiquitous Tang, hot chocolate and coffee.
This was a more summery morning, warmer and more humid. We broke camp, and by 10:50 we were on our way back to Sawbill Lake, where we would spend our last night before heading back to what most people call “civilization”. We took a path along the shore side of an island and managed to slide up onto a well-hidden underwater boulder, so now we have some new scrapes on the bottom of our Northwind! Another case of the bow paddler looking ahead to spot (non-existent) wildlife and not paying attention to the task at hand. Sigh.
It is a pretty paddle through another branch of the Kelso River to the portage to Sawbill Lake. The portage is short (13 rods) and has two different approaches from the river side, but only one put-in at Sawbill. I thought this one branch of yellow leaves high up in the birch tree seemed like another harbinger of autumn:
We paddled up to the northwest bay of a remarkably calm Sawbill Lake and took the next-to-last campsite after finding that the ones we thought we wanted were already occupied. We waited for a group of six ladies to leave, and chatted with them briefly. They were from “the Cities”, and had been on Frost Lake for several days, but were headed “back to work”.
The site isn’t great, but has a scenic quality about it, with a sort of elevated reading nook full of rocks on one end and a pathway along the lake at the other. I photographed a rather interesting pink flower (I found out later this is the remnants of fireweed), and various fungi, and enjoyed the warm afternoon outdoors while Neil rested in the tent. At 2:30 our little thermometer read 82 degrees and the lake was completely calm; by 4:00 it was breezier and some clouds were gathering. We heard a few isolated rumbles of thunder about suppertime, but never had any rain and the sky over us always looked pleasant.
This site has a short biffy trail that you approach by stepping up on a couple of stair steps in a small boulder on the hillside. The biffy is one of the very newest—I would say it had been put in during the summer, as the dirt around it seemed newly arranged. It was green —a novelty! Go GREEN!! :-) Made me wish for a Spartan sticker!
There were red squirrels chattering around along the path while I was photographing the fungi, and also along the biffy trail, but they never came to visit us, so our record of no photographs of furry creatures on an entire trip managed to stay intact. I do believe this is a first!
We cooked supper on the stove this evening, Mountain House turkey tetrazini, Mountain House green peas, Cache Lake blueberry scones, and Cache Lake hot apple dessert, plus coffee. Over supper Neil broke the news that he didn’t find a good hanging tree, so we decided to put one pack under the canoe and hang the other one over the leaning tree on the biffy trail. Not an ideal situation, but on our last night, it would have to do.
We both sat outside and read our books until moonrise. This was the full moon, and it was very beautiful. Our campsite was situated perfectly to enjoy the moon rising over the trees and the lake, and the lovely summer evening with a minimum annoyance of just a few mosquitoes made for a great last night experience.
We were in bed at 8:50. We certainly wouldn’t be sleep-deprived after this relaxing trip! ;)
Awake at 6:20 to the sound of lots and lots of red squirrel chatter! I really thought this time there would be a little creature in the cooking area, but the squirrels around here are very shy! I crawled out to see another calm and sunny morning with just the remnants of mist still visible. The sky would be clear for the sixth day in a row! (This weather was almost boring.)
We had the last of our eggs with a generous amount of bacon pieces (I had a whole six ounce bag in the food pack that we hadn’t used yet), and a full frying pan of hash browns, and we savored our hot chocolate followed by two cups of coffee. The bright sun came up over the island to our east and warmed the site up very quickly from the 48 degrees I had recorded at 6:20.
This little moth came by to pose for me. It is an ilia underwing. Notice how beautifully it camouflages itself on the bark of the tree:
I think the rose hips are a nice splash of autumn color--not as beautiful as the pink roses in the spring, but still they have their own loveliness.
And then it was time to pack up for the last time. Always a sad time.
We broke camp about 9 AM, with temperature at 64 degrees and another sunny sky overhead. We paddled down the length of Sawbill Lake to the outfitters’ landing where we encountered so much congestion at the dock (several canoes and six kayaks) that we decided to put in at the boat storage area instead.
We were back on the road at 1:05.
We were on the lovely back roads again, this time noticing that the maples and birches were showing more color than just six days before.
We had determined that we would go out of our way a bit and have our lunch at the Trestle Inn. This is a neat place, built from the timbers of an old railroad trestle, and with a lot of rustic charm. Great burgers, too!
We continued on the gravel roads, ending up on Temperance Road, and stopping at the falls on the Temperance River for a photo shot and stretch break along the hiking trail.
Then it was a trip up the north shore, with a quick stop at the Grand Marais Trading Post, finally stopping at our night’s destination, the historic Naniboujou Lodge. We had eaten dinner there years before, but never had stayed overnight in the lodge, so this would be a new experience. And even though we took the last available room, and it wasn’t the premium room, we had a very good time at Naniboujou. The views of Lake Superior were beautiful, the food was outstanding, and just seeing the gorgeous Cree Indian painting décor of the dining room there—one of a kind, for sure—is a highlight of any trip! I am sorry I don't have a photo of the dining room. All I can say is that you MUST go there and experience it! :)
After sleeping in on Sunday and thoroughly enjoying the sumptuous breakfast buffet, we headed back down Minnesota 61 towards Duluth. We stopped at a very interesting gift shop called “Spirit of Gitche Gumee”, had pie at Betty’s Pies near Two Harbors, shopped at Sweet Pea in Two Harbors and ate our lunch at Judy’s there. Managed a photo of the Split Rock Lighthouse on a hazy day, also.
And finally, we made our way into Duluth and up the hill to the Fairfield for our night’s stay. I got myself connected to the Internet, caught up on messages a bit, and we made contact with Karl Everett, whom we were meeting for dinner.
We had dinner at the Blackwoods Grill with Karl and Kerry Everett ("Starwatcher" on quietjourney.com and bwca.com). It was a delightful evening of conversation and delicious food in a relaxing and pleasant setting.
On Labor Day we traveled across Wisconsin, and sailed at 7 PM on the Lake Express Ferry across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan.
The sailing was just at sunset, and it was most pleasant.
We spent that night in Muskegon and on Tuesday morning we traveled back home, thankful for a relaxing and memorable vacation with another opportunity to enjoy the Boundary Waters. We are richly blessed.
A word of thanks should go to Starwatcher for his assistance in identifying various insects in my report.
And now, very special thank-you to HoHo. Certainly for our cabin lodging, which is beyond anything imaginable, and greatly appreciated. But also for coaching me in how to do a pictorial trip report. It has been another adventure for me--I am still learning. But it was fun, too!
And if you are still reading, after this very long report for such a short trip, thank YOU! We enjoy the reports of others, and we hope you have enjoyed ours.