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June 06 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

Sawbill to Cherokee Washout

by rharjes
Trip Report

Entry Date: June 19, 2012
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 2

Trip Introduction:
We had a simple plan in mind, to make it to Cherokee Lake for 3 days time, explore the area, do some fishing and enjoy the BWCA. Our plans ultimately were changed by the unpredictable weather and the pure exhaustion caused by the weather. What turned out to be my shortest BWCA trip, will end up being the most memorable due to the weather.

Day 1 of 2

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 Sawbill Lake, Ada Lake, Skoop Lake, Cherokee Lake

We started out early around 7am from Wilson Lake about 20 miles west of Sawbill Lake in the morning. The last forecast we heard for the day indicated that there was the potential for AM Thunderstorms and PM Thunderstorms. This was the forecast for the rest of the week, scattered showers and storms. We figured if we paddled early enough, we could make it Cherokee before the rain started and get setup. We paddled north on the waveless Sawbill Lake noting that all campsites were taken along the way, so we decided to press on to Cherokee. The first portage into Ada Lake we had hoped to single portage. We didn't expect bugs either. We had a CCS Guide & Pioneer pack, a 30L Barrel plus a Barracuda Spirit II. We quickly learned that single portaging was not going to work. Between the bugs going for any available open skin and the weight of the packs, my girlfriend dumped the guide pack, keeping the barrel and I kept moving on with the pioneer pack and canoe. We walked back about halfway to get the guide pack. While this portage was short, I knew in the back of my head the tough one was going to be the 180 rod portage into Cherokee Creek. Ada Lake was silent and still, except for the echoing sounds of thunder far off in the distance. The thunder was getting louder, but I still felt comfortable with our speed of beating the rain.

Paddling Ada Creek we got a surprise shortly after entering it, something behind us was not happy we paddled by it and heard a loud SPLASH into the water. I looked back and saw an entire floating bog getting tossed around as if it were as light as a feather. I saw something roll around in it that looked like a huge beaver. We kept paddling to keep our distance since I really didn't want whatever it was it coming up next to the canoe. We made it to the beaver dam and had a quick pullover to Ada Lake. We paddled around it quick and headed north to the next portage. Ada Creek went farther that the map made it out to be, so we kept following it, then clearly finding the short portage. We double portaged this one and quickly loaded the canoe and moved north to the other send of Skoop Lake. This was the portage we had been dreading.

I portaged the canoe and barrel with the assumption of making it to the end in one shot, and then coming back halfway to meet my girlfriend and pickup the heaviest pack. She was going to go halfway, set the pack down and go get another pack and meet in the middle. We misjudged the halfway point and it was more like the 1/3 point of the portage. I made it just about to the end when the pain just about got unbearable. I set the canoe down in a clearing and brought the barrel to the end. Met my girlfriend at the 3/4 point and trucked back to get the other pack. Our portage plan didn't work out exactly as expected, however, we decided to simply double portage next time to keep each other company.

We paddled Cherokee Creek and finally came upon Cherokee Lake! It took us 5 hours to reach Cherokee, which I thought was great time. We ended up taking the first island site into the lake. We were exhausted, and decided to go for it. It had great views and plenty of options for tenting, and a somewhat decent lakeshore. The thunder started getting louder and we could see rain coming in the distance. We setup the tent quick on one of the higher sites on the way to the latrine. I setup the CCS Tarp near the fire pit so we could enjoy an overlook of the lake. It started raining as I was setting the tarp up. We were shot from the 5 hour trek into Cherokee, so we checked in for an afternoon nap while we waited out the rain. We woke up around 6:30pm and it was still raining. We were hungry and had to go to the bathroom, so we tucked in under the tarp shortly to decide dinner. As we were deciding dinner the rain started coming down even harder, so we opted for a quick dinner of a couple handfuls of trail mix. We should of ate more after the day, but we were tired. We got all comfortable and talked about life until it got dark and listened to the NOAA weather broadcast expecting the warnings to expire into the evening. We dozed off and the rain continued down hard. A few hours into the night we woke up to torrential downpours of sheeting rain. This is the type of rain you'd see at the front of a severe thunderstorm...except it lasted for hours. As the sheeting rain let up, heavier more constant rain took its place. I could hear water flowing around the tent and pooling up everywhere around only hope was that we'd stay dry until the morning. The rain was coming down so hard at points that it was actually wetting out the fly on the tent (Nemo Losi 2p). We'd get a drip of water here and there where there were contact points on the fly connecting it to the inner tent. I still wouldn't trade that tent for any other, it did keep us dry, even in some of the rainiest conditions we've ever experienced.


Day 2 of 2

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 We woke up early and listened to more rain. I checked my weather/fm radio and couldn't seem to raise any stations. I thought maybe the radio had got wet overnight, so I quit playing with it and fell back asleep until about 9am. The rain slowed to a drizzle so we decided to get out and see what happened overnight with all the water. Lots of puddles, and all the other tent pads on the site we were on were pretty well submersed in a few inches of water. Fortunately our pad faired well, and only had a little bit of pooling towards our feet. We went down to check out our tart shelter, it pooled up a good share of water in the middle of, a few gallons worth were suspended in the air. The lake looked higher, the boulder we saw a few hundred yards out from our site was gone under the water (I'd guess 5-6" the lake rose overnight) We noticed a group of paddlers heading towards the portage, and we decided to cook up some breakfast while we had some non-raining weather for a short time. We saw another group of paddlers leaving. We tried the radio again. No NOAA, no FM radio out of Duluth, but we were barely able to hear a station out of Grand Marais. The first thing we heard it talking about was something about phone blocks and what number to use since 911 was down. Then they started talking about how 61 was closed, 35 was closed, and Duluth was a wreck because of the rain. We had a good idea that the rains were substantial, but never thought it was enough water to be so destructive. With all the talk about the destruction, we had no idea what was in store for us the next few days to dry out. We saw more rain approaching and heard thunder in the distance and decided right then and there, we weren't going to sit in the tent again for almost a day to let it all pass through again. We packed up everything and headed back to the 180 rod portage. It started heavily raining halfway down Cherokee Creek. Fortunately the lightning and thunder seemed like a good distance away through the duration of the creek, but once we landed at the portage the sky opened up the faucet, and dumped rain so heavy we could barely see 10 yards in front of us. The lighting and thunder was in full force. We started along the portage trail and mud wasn't the issue, it was the 1+ foot of water flowing down the trail, making you unsure of every step along the 180 rod portage We did the portage twice, not trying to leap frog this time, just being safe and together. We reached Skoop lake and not more than a a minute or two on the lake, the sun came out in full force. It felt so wonderful feeling the rain gear dry out and seeing things in the canoe dry out. We made it to the Skoop to Ada portage, which was a lot higher than the day before. The water was pretty well over the rock landing that was there the day before. I was a little concerned with the beaver dam on Ada Creek with the new water levels in the lake. I assumed the dam might be slightly difficult to pass through safely. We reached it and the water level was up and it was flowing good over the top, but there was still a little bit of room on the side of it to maneuver the canoe by it and eliminate the portage. Ada Creek was flowing very quickly and it took us next to nothing to paddle through it. The last portage into Sawbill was also under a few inches of water. Ada Creek into Sawbill was roaring next to the portage trail, I didn't want to find out if we could eliminate the last portage.

Once on Sawbill, a heavy fog set it, I hastily misplaced my compass the day before in the heavy rains, so we were paddling blind...quite literally. We had to keep the eastern shore in sight, since visibility was around 20-30 yards tops in the fog. We ran into a group of fisherman fishing the north end between the islands that weren't having much luck. It took us around an hour to make it back to the EP and we were exhausted. Another group of two guys were on Phoebe the night of the rain, and were hoping to layover on Beth, but they decided to leave early too and paddle and portage over to Sawbill after the surreal rain and the portages that turned into rivers overnight.

My girlfriend and I both decided Cherokee was too far to push, and the conditions that night made it even worse coming back the next day - defeated by the rain. This was probably the least fun BWCA trip I have done, but it is the most memorable with the natural events from the night before. Going back to our land on Wilson, many roads along the way were washed out or under water. I had to walk the road first numerous times to make sure it was passable before trying to get my Corolla through it. We made it, and decided to shoot up to Sven & Oles for a warm meal shortly before they closed for the night. The next day we were blessed with sunshine, and started drying out. The next trip is in August, except we're going west, with more people!


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