BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 06 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Where it all began--my first trip into the BWCA
August 13, 2005
Number of Days:
Before this trip, wilderness camping was something I had not experienced. My father had been teaching me about hunting and fishing since I was a young boy; but spending nights in the woods with tents pitched under the starlight was an experience I had not yet been blessed with.
I was eighteen years old at the time and had just graduated from Anoka High School. My trip partners were TJ (my best friend), Katrina (TJ's girlfriend and now wife), and Melissa (Katrina's closest friend). Both TJ and Katrina had been to the Boundary Waters before as a part of church groups, but Melissa and I had little experience with this kind of trip. My significant other at the time was not thrilled that I would be spending nights in the woods with a woman other than her. But we had given her the chance to go with us early in our planning and she had declined. In hindsight, she may have changed her mind and had tripped with us, if she knew her spot would have been filled by another woman. In the end, I'm glad it worked the way it did. I left the cities with a kiss from my girlfriend and an understanding that Melissa and I would not be staying in the same tent together. Or would we?
I don't remember much from the drive up or the night before the trip. However, we did stop at TJ's uncles place in Cambridge to pick up our canoes for the trip. Trying to save money on canoe rentals by borrowing them was one of our biggest downfalls on the trip. The canoes were heavy, battered, aluminum brutes weighing in at a whopping 80 and 95 pounds each. I believe both of these canoes were Sea Nymphs, which later we nicknamed them the “Sea Beasts.” We immediately realized that these canoes were awkward to lift and carry. I had never portaged a canoe before this trip and had no understanding of how it should be done. But carrying these canoes didn't make sense. There was no good way to do it without two people. Why was this you might ask? These canoes did not come equipped with portage yokes, a piece of equipment I had never heard of and had no idea how bad we would need them on our trip. But being young and dumb, we took what we had available to us and headed north without a second thought.
The drive went smoothly, probably why I don't recall much. We stopped at the Ranger Station in Tofte to pick up our permit and I got to watch "the video" for my first time. I kind of enjoy watching the video these days; it lets me take a moment to think about what a wonderful place the BWCA is and what it takes to keep it so pristine. It's just a short moment to collect myself after a long, often hectic, journey north.
The Sawbill Trail was an awesome drive. We stopped along the trail several times to get out and take a few photographs. TJ and I are both avid photographers and had many rolls of film to fill with the light of the landscape. Our group arrived safely, albeit later than we had hoped at the Sawbill landing. We were greeted with a stiff wind coming from the north and a light rain. We packed our gear into the canoes and pushed off with hopes of making it to Cherokee lake. We made a poor decision to split up the canoe teams by sexes-- the men in one canoe and the women in the other. TJ and Katrina were power paddling in the bow, while Melissa and I guided our canoes in the stern.
As we entered the main part of the lake, the wind seemed to get stronger and the rain became heavier. The girls were having a hard time keeping pace with us in the tough conditions. TJ and I had to slow down often to let them catch up to us. Our progress was slow and tiring. I might have described the experience as miserable had it not been taking place in such a beautiful setting. There is a reason Sawbill is such a popular entry point.
We paddled hard for several hours until we reached the portage to Ada creek. By the time we got there our hands were white and spongy, as if we had spent the entire day in a tub of water. It was cold and much later than we had anticipated, so we decided to rest our tired bodies for the day at the campsite adjacent to the portage.
We set up camp as the rain turned to drizzle. We pitched both tents with the mind frame that guys and girls would sleep separately; but in the end, we put all of our wet gear into the smaller tent, and we all crammed into the other tent. I was feeling a bit guilty about this set-up, but we really did need to keep our gear and us as dry as possible. Before we called it a night, TJ and I tried some fishing in the bay by the portage. I managed to reel in a very small northern pike, it was probably nine inches at most and the only fish we caught that evening. When we retired for the evening the girls were chilled to the bone, so we had them move to the center of the tent so they would be surrounded by warm bodies. Of course TJ wanted to sleep next to Katrina, so I sheepishly took my spot next to Melissa and the cold tent wall.
I arose early the next morning before anyone else got up, and I was well awarded for doing so. This was one of those magical boundary waters mornings that makes all the hardships fade away. The weather was much better this morning with nearly clear skies. The sun had just peaked over the horizon and was cascading golden light over the shoreline pines of Sawbill. A light mist was rising off the calm waters, and my fishing rod was calling to me. I grabbed it, attached a storm chug bug (one of my favorite top waters) and waded into the water. The water was cold after a night of rain but felt refreshing at the same time. I made a few casts and twitched my lure back to me; it spit water into the air and made the "bloop... bloop" noises calling to the fish around. While I was focusing on my lure, awaiting a strike, a pair of loons emerged from the water near my submerged thighs and startled me. I apparently did not have the same affect on them because they just casually paddled around me as I stared in awe. I slowly moved out of the water and set my rod aside as I went for my camera. I managed to capture a few decent photographs of them as they took turns diving near shore.
After the loons had passed, I returned to the water and my fishing rod. I heaved my lure out as far as I could and as soon as it cracked the surface of the water a large swell overtook it. I quickly reeled up the slack in my line and firmly set the hook, hoping I was not too late. The smallmouth bass leaped into the air and violently shook its head in disapproval. Alright! I thought to myself as I carefully reeled in the strong fish. I landed the monster smallmouth near the rocks on shore. It was a thick, beautiful fish; a true bronze back with brilliant red eyes.
I was very happy with my catch and decided I needed someone to take a photograph of me with it before I turned it into breakfast. I believe I had Katrina do the honors but don't really recall. She is an early riser, like I, so I assume she was the first person to emerge from the tent. I filleted my smallie and pan fried it in butter with salt, pepper, and cayenne to spice things up. This was the first time I had cooked bass and did not realize how easily the filets could come apart. We all ended up sharing a flaky dish of bass crumbles. The bass had a bit of an earthy flavor but it was still quite savory. I think Katrina prepared something in addition to our morning fish, but I don't remember what we had.
We packed up camp pretty early and made a move for Cherokee. We paddled the short distance to the 80 rod portage to Ada Creek. TJ and I explored the portage and took a few photographs before we returned to our gear and the ladies. The portage looked smooth and level but a little on the narrow side as it runs through dense forest. I thought this portage would be easy but we had a lot of gear and some monstrous, awkward canoes to deal with.
I tried to pick up and carry one of the canoes by myself; this did not pan out well. Despite being a strong, young man who had just spent the last four years of his life playing football and weight training, I was unable to manage the canoe by myself. I could not find a balance point or a way to comfortably shoulder all of the weight on my own. We decided then that TJ and I would have to two-man carry each canoe across the portages, while carrying packs on our back on our first trip. Katrina and Melissa carried whatever they could comfortably across the portage and joined us on the trek back to retrieve the remaining gear. We had a lot of excess gear.
After the portage, we launched into Ada Creek. The water was dark here, a marble-like black that reflected the forest well. I really enjoyed the paddle through here and filled several frames of film with the scenery. There are a lot of exposed rock faces here and short cliffs that fall into the shallow water. The harsh sunlight didn’t make for the greatest photographs but documented the area well.
As we approached the 80 rod portage to Ada Lake we spotted a bull moose, mostly submerged in the dark water. This was the first and, to this day, the only moose I have ever seen in the wild. The moose was large bodied and had a broad set of antlers. I paddled toward him, so TJ could take a few photographs. The moose, displeased with our presence, ambled off into the woods on the eastern shore. In hindsight, our approach of the moose was very idiotic but this time no harm was done.
After the moose was gone, we took a look at the portage and the map. We noticed there was a small creek that appeared to travel all the way to Ada lake. Deciding that it would be beneficial to us to avoid the portage, TJ and I decided to see if the creek was passable. If it was, we would walk the portage and tell Katrina and Melissa to give it a go.
As it turned out, the creek was passable despite being very narrow, shallow and full of sharp corners. The creek took us through a large, open grassy area and opened up into Ada lake. It was a neat area and added to the adventure. TJ and I walked the portage back and told the girls to go for it. The girls made it through without issue, and we joined them paddling toward the 92 rod portage to Skoop lake.
The landing at the portage to Skoop was in rough shape. Water levels appeared to be low on Ada, which had created a mud flat to work around. Despite my plea not to, TJ decided to jump out of the canoe, so he could pull us to shore. He immediately sank waist deep in the muck and became stuck. I ended up standing in the canoe and using the paddle to push the canoe through the muck until I could reach semi-solid ground. I helped the girls do the same and then we used some rope to help pull TJ out of the foot-sucking muck. This was a lot of work.
The portage itself ran along a narrow creek a beaver dam had created. The portage was partially flooded and narrow strips of boards stretched across some areas. We carried the packs across the portage and then went back for the canoes. We carried the canoes part of the way and lined them through other stretches of open water. What a pain! We were all pretty beat after this portage. The Sea Beasts, mud, and floods had worn us out. We still had one more portage to do today and it was nearly double the length of the one we had just completed. (Note: As of September 2010, this portage no longer exists. The creek has completely flooded the trail except for about 10 rods on the north end of the portage. You must paddle the creek the beaver dam has created. A few remnants, such as flooded over boards exist but that is it.)
Skoop is kind of a neat little lake. The view from the portage landing was memorable, and I photographed a beaver dam here. The paddle north on Skoop was a short one and gave us little time to recoup before our next portage. The 180 rod portage loomed in front of us. I don’t remember much about the landing here, which is probably a good thing. The portage itself is not terribly difficult, but is considerably long.
We got to work right away because daylight was beginning to wane. TJ and I carried the canoes while wearing our life jackets to pad our shoulders from the gunnels. We positioned ourselves on opposite sides of the canoe and one-shoulder carried the canoe from the bow and stern; it wasn’t a comfortable way to lug the canoes around but was the most effective way we had discovered. Keeping the canoe balanced, especially around corners or through brush, was the most difficult part of the portage. Our shoulders burned and our legs grew tired. I remember that the mosquitoes were bad here as well-- it was almost impossible to let go of the canoe to swat at them, so I tried blowing them off of my arms as we trudged along the trail. My attempts were futile, and the vampires feasted on us. After some bug spray, we all went back to do it all over again. I believe we triple portaged this 180 rod, when all was said and done. Ugh! We were exhausted.
The landing at Cherokee Creek has a nice gravel beach that makes launching a canoe a cinch. We pushed our aluminum monsters away from the landing and began our journey down the creek. There wasn’t much current in the creek, but it was obvious that it flows east toward Cherokee Lake. The scenery here is spectacular and we all enjoyed this paddle- - exposed rock faces, large boulders, downed trees, lily pads, drowning dragonflies, and even a lady slipper became the subjects of many photographs. Our group was met with an interesting challenge about halfway through the creek as we approached a beaver dam that stretched across the entire creek and dropped several feet down. We weren’t sure how to approach this, but we managed to drag our canoes over the top of the dam without issue.
By the time we reached Cherokee, the sun was fading fast. We wanted to set up camp quickly but we had issues finding a site. We could see that three of the first four campsites on Cherokee were taken and we could not find the other site. I believe we asked the group at the second site on the western shore of Cherokee if they had seen any available campsites. They informed us that we had paddled past an open site near the mouth of creek, so we went back and looked for it.
After finding the site available, we set up camp and started prepping a meal. I solo-paddled one of the canoes out from shore to collect water for our group and the meal. I made my trip much more difficult by paddling from the front of the canoe, rather than the rear or middle. I felt tipsy by myself and was blown around some in the canoe but managed. I believe we had campfire spaghetti this evening, a perennial favorite meal of mine and the people I trek with in the bwca. It’s hearty, filling, simple and light to carry; everything a campfire meal should be out here.
We only set up one tent this evening under the clear skies. We tucked the rest of our gear underneath one of the canoes we had turned into a makeshift table. Things like this made me glad Katrina knows what she is doing out here. TJ and I decided to try some last minute fishing once again this evening. We paddled toward the mouth of the creek and tried some casts there as the sun faded and the moon rose above Cherokee. We took some more photographs and headed back to camp without any bites. I believe we all tucked in early this evening, in the same fashion as the night before. I was too tired to feel guilt this evening, and I slept with ease.
I arose early in the morning to brisk air and the sun just peaking over the horizon. A mist over Cherokee was quickly being burned off by the rising sun. I took out my camera and captured a few photos of the scene. It really was beautiful, and I wished that the others had been up to appreciate it too. On this trip, and ever since, I have always felt that the people who sleep in really miss out on the morning magic the boundary waters tend to offer. In my mind, it is the best part of the day.
I tried to catch breakfast from shore again today, but I had no luck. I have heard that Cherokee lake harbors some nice Northerns and Lakers, so I kept my fishing spirits high. I spent most of the morning alone while photographing camp, the woods and the water. When the others awoke, we made breakfast and lounged around camp, resting our sore, bug-bitten bodies. Originally, we had planned to loop down to North and South Temperance Lakes, to Weird and Jack lakes, then to Kelly and back to Sawbill through Burnt and Smoke. On the map, it looked like a tough route, so we decided we would rest today and head out the way we came tomorrow. We didn’t think we had enough time to complete the route and the 240 rod portage from S. Temperance to Weird lake may have killed us. I think we did the smart thing by changing plans.
The rest of the day was spent as we saw fit. I fished from shore, took plenty of photographs and helped with camp chores. Katrina built a fire and showed me how birch bark makes great tinder. TJ slept in, fished, and did some photography as well. Melissa slept in too and relaxed around camp. Her and Katrina also took some lake water away from shore and helped each other wash their hair. Katrina gave TJ and I shoulder rubs, and I believe some Ibuprofen was shared. We were all tired and pretty beat-- the shoulder rub was welcomed and well earned by both TJ and I. We had good weather and enjoyed each others company around the fire. We watched the group camping on the peninsula adjacent from us swim around and sun bathe on a large protruding boulder in front of their camp. It looked like a nice site, better than ours, but we were more than content with what we had. Our bodies and minds received the rest they desperately needed and all was well.
We got an early, yet hesitant start to our journey back to Sawbill Lake today. We knew we were in for a long day, but we felt more prepared for it than we had two days ago. After we broke camp and had fueled our stomachs, we said goodbye to our temporary home and headed for Cherokee Creek.
The creek was still beautiful and paddling against the current went smoothly. We passed all of the same sites as before but found the beaver dam to be more of an obstacle this time around; but, again, we made it over. I remember feeling a little lost after it seemed like we had been paddling too long, but we kept going and soon enough we arrived at the landing for the 180 rod carry-- it would’ve been hard to miss.
My shoulders were quickly reminded of the physical hardships they had been put through just two days prior. But our group had better rhythm now. We knew what had to be done and who was responsible for certain tasks. We had learned on the go before, and now we were putting those lessons to use. The long portage went smoother than it had, and we were making better time.
Honestly, I don’t remember all of the details from our trek back but things went much better for us. No one sank waist deep in muck, we just carried the canoes across the portages instead of trying to line them through which had been more work than help previously, we all put on bug spray before the portages, and the weather was cooperative again. We still often broke sweat and had to work very hard to get to our destination. We did not see any moose or much else for wildlife on our way back to Sawbill, despite our high hopes. We paddled most of the length of Sawbill, because sites were scarce and we hoped to have an easy exit the next day for the drive home.
We managed to find a decent site that was well sheltered and almost completely shaded; it had a nice fire ring and a good pad to set up our tent. The sun was approaching the horizon by the time we had settled in. I had a difficult time taking off my tennis shoes and socks near the shore, for they seemed suction-cupped to my feet. My feet were shriveled and deathly white from being wet all day. While I was grossing out the girls by showing them off, we all heard an odd droning sound that seemed to approach us. It was LOUD. Really LOUD.
We ran to the shore to discover that a float plane had been circling over our heads. The sound was very unnatural and it displeased me to see a motorized vehicle out here. The plane circled a few times and then landed in the middle of the lake. We thought it was strange that the plane was here, maybe there was a fire near by? Was it an emergency landing? Forest rangers? None of us were sure, but we speculated.
We enjoyed our last night in the boundary waters thoroughly. I believe I caught another small mouth bass near camp, but I am not really sure. The details are hazy. Not sure what was on the menu this evening, but I am sure it tasted great-- most things do out here. We all settled in pretty early as well, because of the grueling day we had just finished. It was nice to have one last night out here and be able to rest knowing that tomorrow would be an easy day. My first boundary waters experience was a pleasurable one.
We paddled out of the boundary waters on August 17, 2005. We had a little wind, but otherwise good weather and a smooth paddle across Sawbill to the exit point. I really remember very little from the drive home; I may have slept. We dropped off the canoes we had borrowed and thanked TJ’s uncle for letting us use them.
After the trip, I had all of my film processed and was very happy with my photographs. I excitedly showed them to my girlfriend who happened to notice a discrepancy between my promise to her and a photo of our tent interior-- which showed four sleeping bags inside of one tent. I was BUSTED. With no other options available, I decided to come clean and explain myself. It didn’t really matter though… she was furious and upset with me no matter what I said. However, we didn’t end up breaking up after this. Another year and a boundary waters trip with her passed before that relationship ended.
I was hooked on canoe tripping in the boundary waters after this trip. We had learned a lot about outfitting ourselves; we really learned what to bring and what not to bring. We also decided the Sea Beasts would never trip with us again. Ever. This first trip was an incredible learning experience for me, and I really soaked all of the lessons in. I found I had a new passion that coincided well with my love of photography, fishing and the outdoors. The canoe trip was just that next step. I am forever grateful to TJ, Katrina, and Melissa for sharing this experience with me and making it enjoyable despite our inexperience.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I really hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave me a comment on our story.