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May 17 2022

Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake

Sawbill Lake entry point allows overnight paddle only. This entry point is supported by Tofte Ranger Station near the city of Tofte, MN. The distance from ranger station to entry point is 25 miles. Access is a boat landing at Sawbill Lake. This area was affected by blowdown in 1999.

Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Latitude: 47.8699
Longitude: -90.8858
Sawbill Lake - 38

First kayak first solo

by bradcrc
Trip Report

Entry Date: September 23, 2009
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 1

Trip Introduction:
My first time in a kayak in bwca, and my first time in alone. My goal was just to have fun, and in the process test the gear and myself to see if a "real" solo trip should be in my future.

Part 1 of 4

Much of my paddling gear is still piled in my living room from my Aug trip, I just need to pick up a few small things and I'm ready. I'm anxious to try out my new water filter... up until my previous trip I always drank right from the lake.

Planning the menu is pretty straightforward, Food for just 5 days and I'm not going to deviate much from the standards. I spend some time testing some ideas with some success. Dehydrated veggies were a hit on the last trip, so I dry and taste test a variety in preparation.

The plan is to go in THU and stay till Monday. I still don't know if this is happening or not. The weather looks good for at least the next few days, so I decide to move things up a day and do Wed.-Sun instead. There are still 13 of 14 permits left, so no worries about getting in on such short notice.

I spend spending most of the day at work Tuesday thinking, "this time tomorrow, I'll be in bwca." After work, I load everything in the truck except the boat which won't fit in with the door closed, and the "fridge food" which will keep better till the next day. The alarm is set and I go to bed by 9 to be up by 3:00am to start the trip.


Part 2 of 4

Wed 3:00 AM Time to leave. unforunately, I'm still asleep.

I accidentally set my alarm for 3:00 PM. Oops.

I drag my sleepy butt out of bed by 4:30. A bit late, but no problem. I check the house, throw the boat into the truck, and by 5:00 am the truck is gassed up and on hwy52 headed north to EP38 just 330 short miles away! The drive goes wonderfully, it's a nice trip from Rochester to Sawbill, with just a couple easy turns. I've got an atlas, a map, and 2 GPS units with me, but none of them are needed. The morning is beautiful, and the traffic is light. As I head north out of the cities, I see traffic piling up on the way into the metro, but my route heading north is clear.

A bit before Duluth the sun becomes strong enough to turn off the headlights. What a beautiful sight to see misty fog hovering over the lakes while the morning sun makes them sparkle. The stands of pine and bold red granite are becoming more and more common, reminding me of why I love this place. I want to stop to take pictures, but I'm on a mission to get to the water and press on.

On the way in, with morning sun shining through the forest onto rock formations, rivers, lakes, hills, I catch myself thinking, "My god that is beautiful." and then laugh at my own realization of what I'm thinking.

I reach Sawbill outfitters to pick up my permit at about 10:00. The parking lot is empty, and so is the store. I wander around inside the store for a good 15 minutes, looking at the shirts, finding some last minute food items, growing impatient, but trying to remember I am in no hurry here. I go outside to waste some time looking at the livery canoes for sale, and a couple returning from their trip shows up and asks if I work there. I reply that I do not, and we all go inside to wait for someone. I'm screaming on the inside as a worker appears and helps the person who just showed up, proceeding to talk about how their trip went and what shower options were available. :) Eventually another employee is summoned and I am able to pick up my permit, purchase some groceries, and watch the video, then skip out the door. It's been more than an hour but I'm now on my way to what I hope will be the best experience of my summer. I load up the kayak and cautiously jump in. It doesn't sink, in fact, it handles extremely well under the added load. Yay!

The plan is to find a nice base camp, then take easy day trips without gear. The short portage into Alton goes very well, even better than I had hoped. I load back up and head into the lake to find a campsite. I had already picked out a couple of centrally located sites, and the first one I checked on seemed pretty nice. Good view, easy access, lots of trees, sandy landing. This would be the site for me. I unload the yak and set up camp.

After the tent is up and most of the gear is distributed, I begin to look for a site for the bear rope. None of the trees have appropriate branches for this. Doh! 100 trees near camp, and none have good branches for throwing a rope over. Well, I'm not moving now. I finally find 2 trees which will work, and proceed to put the rope up. I regret mocking my friends' difficulty putting up the bear ropes during our last trip. This is harder than it looks.

Time to filter some water, put up the hammock, and relax. I spent a few hours just lying in the hammock soaking in the wonderful solitude and marveling at how quiet the world can really be. There are no bugs, I see no one else on the lake, and the weather is absolutely perfect. Life just does not get better than this.


Part 3 of 4

I'm awake before dawn, not hard this late in the season. I take some pictures of a beautiful sunrise, and enjoy some hot chocolate while appreciating a level of solitude I've never before experienced in my life. This really is something special.

Some exploring, a bit of hammock lounging, and then a decision to pack lunch and head off for a day trip towards Burnt lake. I paddle back across Alton and then across and north on Sawbill. Smoke Lake is filled with a slimy green algae. I paddle around the perimeter of the lake exploring each island and campsite. I continue to Burnt Lake which also appears very swampy. I'm glad i didn't choose to stay on one of these lakes, since drinking this nasty water does not seem apealing to me.

I hadn't seen another person on the lake since first hitting the water 24 hours prior, but it's now THU, and that wouldn't happen again for the rest of the trip. It's not as nice, but still pretty hard to complain about sharing an entire lake with just a handful of people. The first few sites on Burnt lake are occupied, but I find a nice empty campsite to sit down for lunch. Lunch is quick and tasty. As before I spend much of the time pondering how happy I am to be there, and how beautiful the area is.

It's now late afternoon, time to head back towards camp.

3 portages down, 4 more to go today. Portaging is not my favorite part of the BWCA experience, but it's a price to be paid for seeing new lakes. I head back through burnt and smoke lakes, back across Sawbill and to the Kelso river, which is just beautiful. This is heaven for me. I make my way to kelso lake and the short portage back to Alton and the campsite. The weather is wonderful again today. I decide to cool down after my long paddle with a swim. The water is cold, but very refreshing. I sit on the warm rocks along shore for a while, letting the heat from the sun take away the water's chill. Another great day.

Dinner is excellent, this is better than what I make when I'm at home. I clean up the dishes and start a small campfire. I look out over the lake as my second evening approaches and regret starting the campfire so early. I love being out on the water at twilight, but not today, I'm now bound to the campsite. Oh well, there is always tomorrow night for that. Some smores are a tasty way to make me quickly lose my regret over starting the fire too soon.

It's very windy tonight, the trees are shaking and things are very loud. Last night was calm and quiet as could be, so every small (or large) sound in or near camp was keeping me awake and wondering about the safety of my food pack, so this will be a nice change.


Part 4 of 4

I'm up before sunrise again, I'm not sleeping well. Perhaps so much time lounging in the hammock has made me less tired than I should be, but a new sleeping pad is on my list of upgrades.

I turn on the radio to hear today's forecast, and an alarming weather report is playing. Serious thunderstorms and strong winds are on the way, they should be hitting any moment. Bummer. I get up and make breakfast, pondering the day trip to Phoebe I had been planning. can I fit it in before the storms hit? The skies are dark, severe weather seems imminent. Once the rain hits, it's not supposed to let up until well after I'm due to leave. I decide that I've already gotten what I came for, adding 2 more days really wouldn't be a benefit if they're cold, dark, and wet. I decide to break camp and head home while I can still consider the trip a great success. I pack up camp quickly to beat the incoming rain, and load up the gear into the kayak for the trip back.

The lake is windy and a bit rough, but the kayak is steadfast.

I reach the portage and begin to unload the gear. As if a lightswitch had been flipped, the skies instantly cleared. The sun was shining, and it was warming up. What cruel joke is this? I'm forced to ponder my options once again. I decide that even if it's nice, I'm still quite ok with the trip as it currently stands. I will not feel cheated out of the additional days, and some fast food on the drive home was sounding quite appealing. I load the gear back into the boat and begin the paddle back to the car.

I didn't make it very far. The change in the weather was stunning. Where it was dark and gloomy just minutes earlier, it was now clear and warm. I just sat in the lake pondering. I turned the bow towards the south, towards the road home. I began to paddle.

No. This would not do. I pulled a fast 180 degree and began heading north. There were some nice campsites on the north part of the lake, if nothing else, I would have lunch on the water, and then I could decide whether to stay or go. A great thing I've discovered about traveling solo is that you can change your mind as often as you like, and no one will complain. :) I found a great empty campsite and set up the hammock. I filtered a bit of water and had a great lunch while enjoying a wonderful view. After lunch I spent several hours exploring and taking pictures in the area near camp, then lounging in the hammock enjoying what had turned out to be another beautiful day.

The sun was starting to approach the horizon and I had to make the decision whether to set up camp, or head home. One of my purposes for this trip was to make up for my last trip where we had rain every day, so I was extra sensitive about bad weather. As I was trying to decide, the forecast contained more gloom and doom, and the skies started filling once again with clouds. I decided it would be greedy to expect, or ask for anything more than I'd been given.

As I paddled back to the EP, I caught myself thinking that the trip was absolutely perfect, with not a single problem worth worrying about. I wondered if I had jinxed myself to falling out of the boat or crashing my truck by tempting fate with that thought, but couldn't help it, this had been one of the best trips of my life. If there is such a thing as a perfect trip, this one would qualify.

On the way home, from Duluth to the cities I ended up driving through one of the most severe thunderstorms I've seen this season. The drive wasn't the most fun, but even if it was much worse, it would still be worth it.

I can't wait for next season.


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