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BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

February 08 2023

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

Savoring Time on Wine

by ripple
Trip Report

Entry Date: May 17, 2011
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 2

Trip Introduction:
We wanted time together- a Spring lake trout hunt from Sawbill to Wine Lake was the plan.


I think some of us are hardwired to love planning and organizing. I know that I am totally built for it. I now have a lifetime of experience at it- I am damn good at it too.

My husband Ed loves that I put everything together for our trips. He is proud of my ability to have everything at our fingertips. He is always pleased with the places we get to and how well we do it. What he dreads though, is my most miserable flaw in all my epic planning- I always pack way too much in to- way too little time for any human to see and do. My Dad used to describe me as packing 10 pound of sh@# in a 5 pound bag. I make everyone around me a little crazy at times.

This time I wanted to be sure that our spring trip to the BWCA would be relaxed. I wanted Ed and I to enjoy our time together. We have had a long year of working too many hours and not having the time to linger together. We call it re-charging, and we were looking forward to laughing, talking, and having those moments that you remember together- reliving how much you love being with each other.

I decided that the focus of the trip would be Lake Trout. Ed had caught a few on our first trip to the Boundary Waters in early June a few years ago, and ever since then they seemed to really represent the ancient lakes of the area. We had really enjoyed Sawbill Campground as a basecamp last spring and wanted to have the back up of the Airstream trailer if the weather was cold and rainy. I can do cold, I really don't mind rain- but 40 degrees and raining is my nightmare. The trailer as a spot to return to from daytrips is a very nice compromise trip if necessary.

With dreams of lake trout, my planning was launched. I memorized everything Michael Furtman had to say about lake trout in the BWCA. In December I reserved space #5 at Sawbill for May 15th to May 22. I knew that most of the lake trout lakes were up off the Gunflint Trail, but knew there were also some good spots to head to from Sawbill. I gave Ed the choices- a number of easy portages to get to bigger lakes with more people, or a nasty 480 rod portage to Wine Lake were the lakers were hanging with only a few campsites spread out. He referenced the Tuscaroroa portage we knew well- 366 rods and opted for a bit more portage to have less people. Wine Lake here we come!

Having previously arrived exhausted from our 12 hour car ride, in keeping with the more relaxed version of a trip, we decided to break it up into two six hour drives. We took off from the Chicago area after Sunday dinner with the kids. We made it to Eau Clare, WI before midnight and slept hard in the cozy trailer parked in a Walmart parking lot next to an enormous, ½ million-dollar RV. A few last minute items and we were on our way early morning. One more stop for a hearty breakfast and the final six hours ride evaporated into music, long talks, pointing out the beautiful views along the North Shore.

The long drive down Sawbill Trail Road was painful for the Airstream’s aluminum skin- despite our padding the front with cardboard from the grocery store at the beginning of the road. Finally backed into to space #5, we walked to the edge of the site and looked out across the lake, hugged each other hard and laughed at how perfect everything was. The weather forecast was for high sixties and sunny for the entire week, the ice was out on Sawbill only six days ago, and we were here early enough to relax and enjoy. We had to fight the urge to just head out right then and there. No- we were going to force ourselves to take this easy- lets just relax and enjoy our time was the mantra.

After some paperwork at the Sawbill office, campsite registered, fishing licenses renewed, permit for tomorrow ready- we were off to paddle Sawbill. The entire afternoon and evening scouring the coves and shoreline, throwing everything we could think of- all we got was sunburn. Where are the fish on Sawbill? Oh well- hot showers a big steak dinner over the fire pit, final pack organizing and we were off to a deep sleep on our fluffy bed in the trailer. Early Tuesday morning, well rested with a quick granola bar, banana, and coffee breakfast we made it into the water for our lake trout quest.

The day couldn't be more spectacular- clear blue sky, just the slightest wind at our back, warm enough for just our shirts, but cool enough to not break a sweat. We had only found a few ticks; the flies and mosquitoes seemed occasional and not really biting yet.

We have a little inside joke when we feel like we have the perfect moments together, where we clink our wedding bands together like it gives us super hero powers- we grinned like kids and leaned hard to clink across the canoe that morning. As we moved up Alton Lake we passed an experienced canoer who shouted “Hey- you are using your bent paddles backwards- the bent part of the shaft goes forward” Yikes! Really?!? Had we been using our new paddles wrong?!? How embarrassing! We laughed at our inexperience and at the thought of how painful it had to be for the guy to have watched before he decided to shout to us. We thanked him as he cautioned us that Alton Lake could get tough in higher winds.

We paddled on, bent shaft forward, up through Kelso Lake and River, through Lujienida Lake. We wondered at how beautiful and unique this area was- all the twists and turns through the marshes just coming alive with buds- yet how miserable it would be when the water levels were low and you would have to drag across the muck for miles!

We saw two young bald eagles swooping the marsh for prey. We were able to quietly paddle close enough to get a good picture of one in a tree when it flew past us with its great wings rustling with amazing power. We steeled ourselves for the long portage. I had pumped fresh cool water and Gatoraded up the two Nalgene’s. We rested at the beginning of the portage- eating a trail lunch of thick cut salami, cheese, and trail mix. We generally like to single portage but decided to see if leap frogging would be more relaxed. Off we went to learn how old and fat on a long hard portage makes you regret all the pizza we ordered over the winter. We were very conscious of the dangers of a twisted ankle, sprained knee, or an injured back and carefully made our way and tried to enjoy the scenery.

We took note of the fresh landscape of the BWCA in the spring. It was exactly like Michael Furtman described, “Aspen and birch are beginning to bud; and, thanks to those buds, the surrounding hills are awash with a soft gray-green glow, as if rubbed over with artist chalk.” I had read so much of his chapter on lake trout over the last few weeks, much of it out loud to Ed as we dreamed about the upcoming trip- he laughed as we walked and kept quoting Furtman’s line, “When the Aspen buds are the size of mouse ears, lake trout fishing is at its best". We talked about the amazing geology of crossing the Laurentian divide-water we were seeing on this killer hike would eventually make its way to the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans. Ed is always in front on the portage- the moment where he shouts back “Lake ahead” is always a relief- this portage I nearly cried I was so happy to be done. The final portage into Wine Lake was so hard- only 100 rods, but straight up then down- and after the 480 rod march it just seemed worse than any other. The reward for all the work was one of the prettiest lakes I had seen!

Wine had just the right balance of size and islands, beautiful Jack Pine stands, truly picture perfect on that beautiful spring afternoon. I will always remember standing at that portage, sweaty, flushed, sore- and so very happy to be done!

We launched the canoe and headed off to decide on the campsite. We aimed for the island site first- having glanced at the site nearest the portage. Coming around the island we saw the site was taken so we took the time to check out the only other site on the lake. Tucked in a cove was the campsite that proved that not everything site in the BWCA is pretty. I never really understood how sites could be rated 1 or 2 star. I had been fortunate to really only be at beautiful campsites on all our other trips. This site was cramped, scruffy, poorly laid out- and just sad looking. Definitely not a place I thought we would want to be at for the next few days. Ed hates when I‘m not satisfied by where we are- he is always bemoaning my quest for “The next lake, the next best site.” I had promised myself I wouldn't do that to him this trip- so said, “This will be OK- we can make it work.” He took one look at my face and said, “No way- we didn't work this hard to settle for this. We are going back to the portage campsite- or somewhere else if we have to.” I love this man!!

We paddled back to the portage site and we realized that we had just blown past one of the more perfect sites we had ever had. Two huge pine trees perfectly spaced for a hammock or tarp near the fire. There was a beautiful deep pine needle tent site that looked out west across the lake. The latrine was even situated slightly up the slope so that going potty had a great view! There was a steady breeze out of the east that kept what few black flies that were out off the site. We were in our heaven!!

With the sun still high I set up the tent and kitchen area. Ed pumped water, gathered wood, and we got into our camp moccasins and set up Ed the gear for some evening fishing. We relaxed and ate one of the dehydrated meals I had made. The Beef Bourgonion was one I had never done before- and it was a real success. With Minnesota wild rice, the carrots and mushrooms, beef rich in the wine broth- and a few glasses of Pinot Noir, we rocked in the hammock eating chocolate raisins for desert and watching the sun settle over the trees, fascinated by the Loons mysterious diving and surfacing- fishing could wait till morning we decided. We snuggled up in the new bed set up- the 2 Exped 9 down mats and the double bag- Big Agnes Island sleeping bag. The 3 ½ inches of padding, legroom in the sleeping bag- Ed agreed completely that it was absolutely the most worthwhile expense I have ever made in my gear obsessing.

After a deep hard sleep, no sore hips to toss and turn on due to the new pads- we woke early totally refreshed and ready to find fish. Over a huge, hearty egg, bacon, and english muffin breakfast- and we reviewed the plan. Ice was just out; Michael Furtman said the fish would be in the shallows with a deep hole nearby. Wine Lake only had two or three real deep areas so with spoons loaded we hit the shoreline, with winds a bit stiff we broke out the wind anchor to keep us at a slower drift. Around the coves and points we worked every inch of water from the shore to about 10-15 feet- nothing but snags. We entertained ourselves with the frozen waterfall on the southeast side of the lake that was still holding puddles of ice at the base, grabbed a block to cool the bacon and eggs we had left.

We watched as three guys in one canoe came into the lake. We felt kind of bad as we realized the only place they had left was the icky site in the cove on the other side of the lake. We waited to see if they would decide to stay at it or head back up the mountain to go back to the one site at Zenith. They stayed and we spent the night being grateful that it wasn't us who came a day later.

Back at the campsite Ed set up a hot shower for us both.

Refreshed and eating another yummy dehydrated dinner- Beef Stroganoff loaded with wide egg noodles in a creamy beefy sauce with mushrooms. I set up the Backpackers oven and did a big pan of brownies for desert.

Many glasses of the Pinot Noir- we just did not want to pack it out on the long portage right? We sat watching the full moon come up; the loons were calling their sweet sad song, while we rocked in the hammock. We discussed the lack of fish in the shallows and reviewed Michael Furtman’s chapter on lake trout and realized we had forgotten an essential key to where the fish are- temperature! How silly of us- Ed got his thermometer out and took a reading- 58.7 degrees! While ice might have just been out a few days ago at Sawbill- who knows when ice was out here- but it had warmed quickly. We knew we had to go deeper for the fish. With a happy wine glow, and knowing we were going to have a fish dinner tomorrow- we slept hard in the cool night.

Another big egg, bacon, and English muffin breakfast and we were off on our hunt. Trolling near the 30-40 foot depth back and forth and around the hole we went. We didn't talk, the paddling was soft and light letting the wind push us gently across the edges of the hole. Ed, my blessedly masterful fisherman always seems to get the first fish. I pull in my line when I see his bent pole, he directs me where to paddle as he gently lets the fish wear itself out. Up from the deep he scoops into the canoe- a huge lake trout. He grins, “I have never seen one this big!”

Now it’s my turn. We work the hole again, back and forth, up and down and around. Finally- I had it! FISH ON!!! My heart jumped, Ed stopped paddling and brought in his line. “Hold your tip up sweet! Keep slack out of the line! Tire him out!! He’s big honey!! You can do it!! No- NO don’t let the line slack… “ Ugh- I learned that fish can throw themselves off the lure. Up came my spoon- all alone- no fishy lips on it. I almost- well really I did cry a little. I can’t believe I lost him!! I was sure he was the only chance I had and now it was gone. I was so defeated, I just wanted to go back to camp and eat Ed’s beauty- but he wouldn't let me. “Cast that line babe- get another one.” Back and forth we went- then bam! I have another one- I am not going to lose it I think! I work it carefully, no slack, tip up, under the boat and around he goes, up out of the water it tries to throw the lure- but I keep that slack out still, reeling it to the side of the canoe- finally scoop- he is in the boat flopping wildly, but mine all mine!! We laughed and I squealed with happiness!! We did it lake trout success!! We looked at each, clinked our rings and decided we got what we wanted and would not be greedy for more.

We left the fish on a stringer in the lake while we had another hot shower and lounged in the hammock.

Thrilled with our success we enjoyed some more wine with cheese and nuts. We watched another group of guys, 2 canoes with 4 young fisherman, come through the portage. We felt terrible knowing that they had made it here only to find no sites left. Ah they were young and strong- I’m sure they will have stories to tell about how they handled the situation. Our dinner was more than we could have ever wanted. Each fish was so different. My fish was smaller than Ed’s, stouter with deeper pink flesh. Rich, delicious and so worth the hunt. We relished our night, noting the sounds of the woods. The wind whooshing in the pines, the low groan of trees straining on granite. The sharp peppery smell of the pines mixed with the earthy lake scent was so intoxicating. So many stars, the crickets and frogs- an absolute masterpiece to be a part of. I cant tell you how many times we smiled, hugged each other hard just to say “Look at where we are!”. I get a little teary just thinking of how much joy there was to be part of such perfection with the man I love.

We slept hard again knowing tomorrow was going to be tough. We fell asleep giving each other pep talks for getting through the haul out. “Gin and tonics at the trailer.” and “A pounding, scalding hot shower at Sawbill” were what we promised each other. We woke early, packed and sadly said goodbye to Wine Lake. We decided to go back to our single portaging and take lots of breaks. The bugs were so much worse as we headed out and we were grateful for our bug net shirts.

Even the dog was exhausted by the portage!

We made our way through some tough head winds into Kelso Lake and opted for the east arm to avoid Lake Alton . Back to Sawbill campground, Ed refused to let me cook and decided that we were going to drive out for a date night dinner out. Cindy sent us to Moguls in Lutsen where we gorged on prime rib.

Our final day we decided to head to one of the fire lakes that we had caught lots of Walleye at last year. The day was overcast, but the winds were lighter. Our fire lake didn't disappoint and we took a good walleye, a nice small mouth.

For extra fun- I could not stop catching northern pike! Those crazy buggers hit everything I threw- crazy sparkly pink grubs- whatever I had in the box they slammed! We had run out of our leaches and the rain was coming down pretty heavy- so we decided that our time was done. Back to the hot shower at Sawbill, a quick nap and we began the trip home after a huge dinner of Jumbalaya.

I’m writing the trip report as we drive home. I finish a section and read it back to Ed- he smiles and laughs, “Hon- it sounds like the most perfect trip anyone could ever have, almost like a honeymoon- and what’s so cool is we actually did it!” Did I say I loved him? Yep I do!


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