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
“Something is dreadfully wrong!” Mesaba, Dent, Wine loop from Sawbill
July 20, 2011
Number of Days:
It’s about a 19 hr drive to Grand Marais. One the way, I found an awesome ma and pa root beer joint in Oglesby, IL:
After spending the night in the Antler’s Motel in Eau Claire, I picked my songwriter friend Rick up in GM (he wasn’t working due to the gov’t shutdown). After a short stop at a WTIP fundraising event:
And finding parking to be a problem in GM:
we headed off to meet up with Shy Anne in Thunder Bay for a 4 day excursion of project songwriting, the workshop itself and the outdoor concert. The event took place in Nipigon just off the Black Sturgeon River. A pretty 40+ acre area and hosted by owner Ben. Here’s a pic of Ben, myself, Shy Anne and Jake
And the little show on Sat nite (Shy Anne and her gtr player Jordan sat in on some songs- lots of fun.)
And finally the workshop participants.
We left Sunday nite for Grand Marais and after spending some special time the next day there it was time to head to Tuscarora Lodge.
Andy and Sue at Tuscarora are just the best people in the world. They run one of the sharpest operations I have ever seen. Last year they gave me and Old Scout (of bungee dealee bob fame) a bunkhouse. This time I got Cabin #6. Too bad I didn’t have anyone to share it with, but here is a look from the cabin down to Round Lake:
The next day I decided to head off for a day hike on the Centennial Trail which meets up with the Kekabic and then just up the trailhead is the Magnetic Rock Trail. A few pics from those hikes:
The deer flies were horrendous to say the least. In fact, another term for those flies had been coined, but this report will remain rated “G”. However, I decided to use a deer fly patch that I bought at Piragis long ago. It worked like a charm. At the end of the day, I counted 26 flies caught. Let ‘em suffer! :
That night we had an incredibly fun unplugged acoustic lodge concert. Our very own Mocha showed up as she was just down the road. Thanks Mocha! You can see that the promotion for the event was spot on:
Next day it was time to leave and finally be on my wilderness adventure. I did a little gift shopping in Grand Marais, picked up my permit at the Gunflint Ranger Station and headed off to Sawbill.
My planned route was to put in on Sawbill, make my way up the Lujineda/Zenith portage, bush whack Leah Lake, taking the loop west from Mesaba thru Dent, then back east to Mug (find Old Scout’s waterfall there), Wine and then retrace my path back to Sawbill. You can follow the route on Fisher F-12 and F-5.
I wanted to take my time and stay in the moment to decompress from civilization. I took a “We Have All Day” approach. “We” being me, myself and I, along with some other kindred spirits I took with me in thought. I didn’t ask for weather forecasts, route info or anything else. What difference did they make? I was going to be there regardless of the weather and I knew my route. I put in late and as a result camped first nite on the north site of the bay before the short Kelso portage. It is a worn site with many cut stumps typical of camps close to the put in, but it had a great swimming beach and it felt like no one else was near. I grilled some brats:
Next day, my goal was to reach the north site on Mesaba close to Leah Lake. I decided then to put on another deerfly patch. The paddle up the Kelso River was a really pretty one under blue skies and a bit of a head wind. Lots of lily pad areas, pitcher plants and twists and turns. Here’s the landing going into Kelso and the paddle:
and two other scenes:
Upon reaching the Lujineda end of the 460 rod portage, I saw a USFS canoe:
I unloaded and began looking for my permit as I know they would be asking for it. I stashed it in my brand new REI daypack and for the life of me I couldn’t find it! Here comes the ranger. Permit asked for. Frantically looking. Spill a whole bag of M&Ms on the trail. Can’t find it!!! Is he going to fine me? Send me back to Sawbill to get another permit? The ranger was great. Earlier I had asked for (and got) a trash bag at the ranger station in GM and they put my permit # on it. The ranger took the # and paddled away. After he was long gone, I of course found the permit in a back pocket of my new pack.
The portage, while not bad, was loooooooonnnnnnng! I decided to leap frog, taking my canoe and food barrel pack first for about 70 or so rods, then returning and picking up my gear pack and day pack for the second round. Paddles and pfd were bdb’d to the canoe. The portage is a bit overgrown in places and once I tripped on a big rock and found myself face down on the trail with a barrel and canoe over me. That was fun to get out of!
Finally reaching Zenith L, I crossed over and portaged into Duck Lake. I not only hit a strong headwind (especially for a solo in an SR17), but Duck is almost entirely covered in lily pads and it took a lot of power stroking on my knees in the center of the canoe to get thru. I gave Duck another similar sounding name that eerily rhymed with it, but again, this is a G rated report.
Even more headwind on Bug and the portage landing at Mesaba greeted me with near whitecaps. I rested a bit, took in some trail mix and when the wind died ever so slightly, I took off. Man, was I burning some calories. I made it to the north end of Mesaba and found NO campsite! What’s the deal? Okay, after passing by it 3 times, I finally saw a hint of a sitting log and there it was. Used very little and just ok. That nite I watched a beaver swim around the lake.
The winds had calmed, the temps were perfect. I sat on a granite slab and had a margarita “on the rocks” – literally.
It was a 6 fly day.
And the next day I went off to bushwhack to Leah Lake. It was finally calm and beautiful. After all, “we had all day" and a merganser showed me the way:
And using a map and compass heading due east I found my way to Leah, first crossing a little crystal clear creek:
And it flowed into Leah:
Because of the so-so campsite on Mesaba, I decided to paddle on to Dent. From this point on it is important to note that the portages on this loop were used very, very little, greatly overgrown and difficult. For the next 4 days, I would see no one and realize that I was in a very remote area.
More headwind as I went across Chaser L. The 130 r portage into Dent was pretty. Pretty hard. It began with a straight up climb and twisted and turned into dead end moose trails. I got hung up a couple of times, but finally got through it. I had the feeling of complete solitude. I even said out loud once on the trail, “Jerry, you are truly alone in the wilderness.”
Turning southbound into Dent I hit yet another headwind. I was sure getting tired of that weather factor. It made the “We have all day” mantra a little tough to savor. But once I reached the east site on Dent it was well worth it. Laced with large gently sloping granite shores and a nice tent pad, it was an exquisite site. Two loons spent the evening dancing on the water and I watched sitting there with my Bailey’s Irish Cream “on the rocks”. I started an idea for a song called “The River Inside Me”.
It was an 8 fly day.
Next morning it was overcast but my mission was to put in and make it to Mug Lake to find the waterfall there and camp on Wine. So off I went.
I’m now heading south into Bug L with a slight headwind (of course!). Bug is a pretty lake that surprises me there are no designated campsites. It turns west and narrows:
It was amazingly quiet and peaceful. I eventually came upon a pull up beaver dam at about 3 ft high:
The 135 r to Louse was very, very rough. It didn’t feel like anyone had traversed it in quite a while. A light rain began and I found myself leap frogging, mostly so I wouldn’t lose my way back as it was many times hard to distinguish where the trail was. Here is the landing:
I'm on Louse and guess what? Another head wind!!! I’m traveling east now. How is this possible? It brings up the old adage that if you’re paddling into a headwind you are going the right way. Another song idea there. Louse was pretty, but with the light rain and wind, I couldn’t stop to take pics. “We Have All Day” wasn’t working here, sorry. Just as I reached the landing at the end of Louse, the wind and rain stopped. Thanks a lot.
Now maybe I’m a wus. Maybe I’m still worn out from the Lujineda portage and all subsequent overgrown, hard to find portages afterward, but I have to say that the 80 rod portage from Louse into Poe is the absolute worst, most difficult hard to walk trails I have ever done. Mostly large wet boulders with dangerous balancing and crevices. I leap frogged it and had a huge sense of accomplishment when it was over.
Off to Mug L. Simple portage, absolutely beautiful little lake:
Mug is small but laced with lots of palisade cliffs and stone. In fact, I had the feeling of sacredness here and was surprised there were no pictographs. I found the waterfall which by now was only a trickle:
I would imagine it to be at least 40 ft high and quite beautiful in the spring run-offs.
Time to find my way to Wine. Here is where the big mistakes get made. I misread the map to read that the portage trail to Wine was right by the falls. Straight up. A goat trail!! Why didn’t Old Scout and others tell me about this? Thinking this couldn’t be right, I scouted up the goat trail to find it end at a pond. Looking at my F-12 it did, indeed, show the trail crossing in a pond. Wow. This is a rough SOB not only straight up but who knows what’s on the other side of the pond? But the Fisher said so, so here I go.
After much difficulty and such, I got my canoe and gear on the pond and paddled across. Is this the landing? The trail ends nowhere. How about over here? Nothing. Paddle around the pond. Nothing. Let’s check the McKenzie. It shows the portage to skirt the pond. The Fisher doesn’t and this trail definitely went into a pond. Different maps. Okay, I’ll go with the Fisher for now. Mistake again. Paddle over there and look at that beaver dam pull up. Nothing (I thought). Just another pond going nowhere. Walk back down to Mug. See if there’s another trail nearby. Nothing. Back up on the pond. Something is dreadfully wrong. I know others that have done this trek. This isn’t right, but I’ll be darned if I don’t know what it is. Should I bushwhack into Wine? It is getting late. Don’t panic, Jerry. I pack my daypack with trail mix, first aid kit, survival stuff, hatchet, saw and my SPOT. I do not let it off my back. I look at my F-12 and set a compass course for 220 degrees. That will get me to Wine and then I can find the correct trail and work my way back. I use the skills I learned at Wabakimi when trying to find old portage trails, break twigs, blaze a tree now and then. Note unusual sightings like that triple brich tree there. It was scary. It got thicker. No Wine Lake and I’ve bushwhacked at least 30 rods. I turn around. I don’t see my broken twigs or blazes. Uh oh. This isn’t good. Don’t panic. Methodically turn around and take your time. There! A freshly broken twig you missed just to the right. There behind it a small tree blaze. Follow that.
Finally back to my canoe, I decided that worst case scenario I would bushwhack a camp on Mug and regroup myself. But first, let’s look at that pond behind the beaver dam once again. Leeches be damned, climb out and up. Nothing. But there’s a higher ridge. Climb up that. Yes!!!, There is Wine Lake and the pond has a stream that openly paddles right into it. I have never been so glad to see a lake in all my life! I paddled out and immediately saw the island campsite. What a beaut. Now look at the McKenzie. Find the REAL trail. There it is. Follow it. Okay, I now see my mistake at misreading the map and trusting a wrong reading on the Fisher. All is well. You can breathe again, Jerry. Didn’t have to use the 911 on the SPOT. How embarrassing would that have been to have only been 20 yards from a trail and need to be rescued! Did I say all is well?
The island site on Wine is exquisite. I was too tired to start a fire (another song idea) and had a vegetarian meal of broccoli pasta with freeze dried peas. Never has a meal tasted so good. I spent the evening with a margarita “on the rocks” pondering what happened earlier and slept soundly that night.
Amazingly, it was only a 3 fly day.
Although I could have taken out this last day, I really wanted to savor one more night in the BW, so I paddled down Alton and found a pretty little site on the east side just north of the portage into Sawbill:
I lit a fire true to my namesake of OneMatch:
Had another little veggie meal and enjoyed the sunset with my last Bailey’s “on the rocks”.
I reflected back on this whole trip. Very, very remote. Challenging, both physical and mental. A great deal of sense of self accomplishment to do all this solo. But best of all, I once again heard the loon’s calls, watched the sun set over a crystal blue northern lake, saw an eagle’s wings soar just over me and all the while thought of the people I love. How can that be anything but a spectacular trip?
And oh yes, it was an 8 fly day:
I wanted to take advantage of some extra time and go to Ely. I haven’t been there in over 4 years. After taking out at Sawbill and a nice chat with Bill Hansen there, I had breakfast at the Co Ho Café in Tofte and headed toward Ely on Highway 1. A beautiful day and nice drive. I met up with Tremolo and we did a really nice paddle out of Fenske Lake. Pretty, pretty area. On the way back we, of course, hit the headwind from hell. Tremolo, however has an amazing power stroke in the bow and after sitting out a bit of it on shore, we pressed on. Tremolo then supervised me setting up my tent on site #7 at the Fenske campgrounds and we then headed for Ho Ho’s place. I brought some “Three Blind Moose “ merlot and “Smoking Loon” cabernet, while ‘Molo baked a veggie lasagna (MUCH better than my veggie meal on Wine!). Ho Ho entertained us with salad and stories and explained to me all that I did wrong on my Mug Lake escapade. It was a night I will long, long remember, not only for the food, but for the wonderful companionship afterward. This was heaven.
Next day, a little tourist shopping, a dinner with Wilderness Mama and Papa from the CCBB board and then it was Tuesday nite in Ely. Ely comes alive!!! Music everywhere! The Front Porch, Wintergreen’s, Northern Grounds – everywhere. Let’s go band hopping!
Tremolo and Ho Ho were dining at RockWood, a great restaurant that had taken over the old Hardee’s. Ely was moving up. I met them and we trekked over to Northern Grounds and heard a great acoustic rock band called “Crazy Neighbors”. (I kept calling them the “Nosy Neighbors”, but that was 3 beers later). We also met up with Mrs Unlce Moose (Heidi) and Timbrgirl from the CCBB as well:
Left to Right:
Mrs Uncle Moose (Heidi), OneMatch, Timbrgirl, Ho Ho, Tremolo.
We talked about bowling afterwards, but as I was very reluctantly leaving the next day, it was time to have an amazing restful and thought provoking evening on a soft bed at the VNO bunkhouse.
The 2 day drive home was uneventful with the exception that about every 20 minutes I wanted to turn back. I didn’t. But my love for the area and for my kindred spirits there has only been intensified.
Thanks for coming along.