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March 05 2024

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

Two guys and a dog to Sprig Lake

by rtallent
Trip Report

Entry Date: July 19, 2012
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 10
Group Size: 2

Trip Introduction:
My canoe buddy,Tom, and I try to get in a trip every other summer. This year, my wife needed to travel while we were gone, so I floated the idea that we take our dog, Galli, to Tom. He said sure (having a couple dogs of his own at home in California). I was a little apprehensive, as this was an older dog and not used to canoe camping. She worked out great! I put Sprig Lake in the title, 'cause I figured that might get folks' interest (e.g., "where the %**# is Sprig Lake?"). Sprig is in the Mugwump primitive management area (PMA), which is west of Little Saganaga and south of the Kek Trail.

Day 1 of 10

Thursday, July 19, 2012 Tom flies out to Eastern Iowa Airport Tuesday afternoon. I pull in (with the canoe and a car full of gear) and spot him along the pickup lane: a lanky guy already in trail clothes. [We've done trips off and on over the years ever since we both younger fools and worked summers at Sommers, the scout base on Moose Lake.] We throw in his duffel and daypack and hit the road over to I35 and north (with the obligatory stop at Cabelas to get a fishing license and look at all the STUFF... buy a couple lures). Then a little farther north to locate Nerstrand Big Woods. After some incomprehensible directions from a really friendly guy who maybe had had a few beers ("well, eerrp, ye go back and over the viaduct and take a left, no, eerrrp, here's a better way..."), we find the park and pitch camp, cook some store food and sort gear. This is an iterative process that continues on Wednesday night, after we finish the drive north and camp along the Temperance River.[paragraph break] Thursday morning, having gotten BWCA permit with PMA (Mugwump) permit at Tofte, we have the food and gear pared down and are ready to roll. Galli the dog has already learned about sleeping in the tent and, er, helping wash dishes (don't tell the wife...). Turns out Galli needs a lift into the canoe at Sawbill landing, but she soon learns to jump in on her own.[paragraph break] Not exactly an early start, but we enjoy a light tailwind up Sawbill and Kelso Lake to Lujenida. The portage up to Zenith (460 rods)is kind of long for a first day, but the trail is in fine condition and seems to follow what looks like old logging road (?) in parts. Tom is out front (he's tougher'n I am and can often go along with a 40 lb. Duluth and canoe, while I sometimes resort to double-portaging, when the front/back pack combination gets old). Our gear is in three packs (one food, one gear, and one raingear, lunch, water, etc.), so we can single pack or double pack on the tougher stuff. Paddles and rods lashed in or carried, per situation. Galli dog has her own ("Outward Hound" brand) backpack with her food, and she does fine, taking up the middle. One of the best feelings: to see that blue through the trees at the end of a longer carry! We put in and cross Zenith, portaging in and out of Duck and Hug to arrive in Mesaba about 5pm.[paragraph break] We take the middle camp (faces south), which is a favorite, and see no one else (since portage to Zenith), though we find out -- the next morning -- someone camped on the north site, out of eye- and earshot. Galli dog is worn out (hot day) and not taking water, so we get her in the shade with water available. She recovers, but it is a warning and we take more care to watch her in the following days; we are none of us so young, anymore.[paragraph break]With the canoe unloaded, we paddle out to get some firewood up away from shore and the campsite. On return, Tom whips up a great split-pea goulash and I pitch the tent (after a number of trips, we've kind of settled into doing the stuff we enjoy, and all gets done). There are a number of moose skulls/antlers about, and I wonder if this is a hunting camp in the fall (but man: to carry moose out that portage...). Still light enough to write in journal at 9:15, but then in the sack, as we usually hit some fishing around dawn.


Day 2 of 10

Friday, July 20, 2012 Up around 5 am and out fishing. We troll for trout but have no luck this time. In 2010 we caught and released some big ones, and several of those had scarring (not sure what from). According to Lakefinder info, this lake (trout first introduced in 1977) was last stocked in 2002. I think there are big trout but not so many (as 1993 census also showed) and that reproduction/recruitment is low (perhaps due in part to the limited deep holes and presence of northerns, which we've also caught trolling). We've never kept any trout from this lake, only pictures.[paragraph break]Back at camp, we untie Galli and collect blueberries, serviceberries and raspberries to spice up the oatmeal. Over coffee, we decide to head north in the general direction of Gillis Lake.[paragraph break] On the water again at 9:30am and we paddle and portage north through Mesaba, Hub, Fente, Whipped (where we watch a bull moose along the east shore),Mora, and Tarry, to Crooked. Along the way, we enjoy collecting blueberries and raspberries by the portage paths. The eastern edge of the Cavity Lake Fire (2006) got to the west shore of Crooked, but not to the campsite we choose just north and a bit west from the portage in from Tarry. We pitch camp about 4pm and it is hot with storm clouds building in the west. Tom whips up a mean camp spaghetti. The storm moves over and we catch a modest rain before the sun is back out. Hot and dopey, even after a short swim, and I turn in early with the fly open to catch whatever breeze I can.


Day 3 of 10

Saturday, July 21, 2012 Up and out a bit after 5am to go fishing, with a nice west breeze. We manage to get a lake trout (maybe 20") for breakfast. I break down the tent and pack while Tom foil-bakes the trout. Galli dog develops an enthusiasm for baked trout skin and we make short work of the rest.[paragraph break]This day, we travel north up into Gillis, then west through French, Powell, West Fern,and Virgin, where we dip south into the top part of Little Saganaga, then back north through Rattle into Gabimichigami. Much of this travel is within the Cavity Lake burn area. The day is sunny and hot, but not grueling hot, with a northwest breeze. I think the southern part of the portage into the top of Little Sag is especially interesting as it allows a view across the burn area to the top portions of Little Sag. Galli dog goes right along with us on the portages, Tom usually well in front and I bring up the tail end of the operation.[paragraph break]On Gabi we paddle west (and out of the burn area)and south to the campsite at the sw end of the lake. Trolling along the way, we pick up another lake trout. So, baked trout for supper, also. Stilling off pretty well this night and we leave the fly off the tent. Galli dog is fine, though she often wants in the tent, as soon as it's set up...


Day 4 of 10

Sunday, July 22, 2012 Although I rate our overall trip as intermediate in difficulty, I would put in "hard" for these next few days. Travel in PMA's with little or no trail can be slow. At the same time, these areas offer up a reward of solitude for the effort.[paragraph break]We break camp and paddle west across this little bay on sw end of Gabi to the creek that flows in from Pouch. It is a pretty creek with a steep drop where it comes down to Gabi. We scout up the creek and portage up on a bit of game trail. Then we two-man the canoe for a while along the creekbed. Then we scout and carry along a more open area where the creek runs more west-east. Some of this stretch is paddling and some is carrying along marshy ground, where the creek shallows out too much to paddle. Others have noted that this kind of travel can be easier with high water conditions more common in early summer; our schedule just hasn't allowed this...[paragraph break] Galli dog is great, staying right with us along these carries; we usually leash her after one carry, and she gets to take a nap as we backtrack for gear (double portaging, with the first carry serving as a scouting carry, is common on these stretches).[paragraph break]We break for water and lunch at Pouch Lake, walking up the marsh grass at the south end to a rock point on the east side. My hat blows off while I am getting ready to filter water, and I go for a swim to get it. Tom finds this pretty amusing, but actually I enjoyed the swim. [paragraph break] The creek is too low for paddling, here, and it is mostly a matter of trying to find the best footing to carry further west. Hummocky marsh ground can be tough going. [paragraph break]We are certainly glad to reach some open water at the bottom of Marble Lake in the late afternoon. We paddle all around the lake and check out possible camping spots... not so many, here, and we finally settle for a somewhat open blowdown area on the south side of the island. As always with PMA camping, we do not "improve" the site, but settle in, no trace style. Likewise, we generally don't have a fire in PMA sites, but use the stove. Galli takes a nap and we relax back with some lakewater and rum. This is the first time we've used a (MSR) gravity filter, and it sure is fine (although we have also a pumpfilter along). Beautiful dusk sky, and we had a thunderstorm later in the night. [paragraph break] A look at the map shows Marble Lake as less than two miles (as the crow flies)from last night's camp... certainly travel in the PMA's is another kind of animal, and one can expect to take several hours to cover a mile, sometimes...


Day 5 of 10

Monday, July 23, 2012 In the morning, we briefly try for fish, but no luck. Marble has been recorded as having walleye. Well, we didn't hurt that fishery, any... [paragraph break] Not knowing what it will take to get to Van (our plan is to camp there, Wednesday), we decide to push on towards Sprig Lake, this day. Turns out that the creek from Sprig to Marbel has a fair amount of paddleable sections (a nice surprise, after yesterday's sections) and we only make about four short carries. Very pleasant, by bushwhack standards, and we are in Sprig by about noon. I like this lake a lot; it has steep sides in places and some rock at shore in spots. We choose a rocky knoll on the west side of the south arm for our campsite. Breeze and a really nice view. [paragraph break]Signs of small ("feeder") fish in this lake, as well as a pair of loons who vocalize (maybe not so used to people, on this lake). We go out fishing and again are skunked. But we also make the paddle one to scout the creek coming in from the west from My Lake (our route, tomorow). The creek is small, and we scout and flag a route up to where the brush opens out to a marsh that the creek runs through (we've brought some flagging tape, always removed on the last trip through).[paragraph break]Back at camp, Tom whips up another great stew, including rehydrated jerky and mushrooms. We kick back and enjoy a great meal and a great view. Galli dog helps wash the dishes... A beaver is not pleased with our company, and it repeatedly slaps water, below our site.


Day 6 of 10

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 Clear, still morning. Galli dog trundles down to the water and drinks her fill. We have oatmeal with blueberries and talk about logging... wondering if this area was logged and when (might be in Bud Heinselman's book). [paragraph break] After breaking camp, we paddle up to the northwest bay and start portaging towards My Lake (removing all of yeserday's flagging off the first stretch). Up in the meadow we carry along the south edge and it is pretty good going, except for some soft ground at the end... [paragraph break]We alternate carries along drier parts with paddling whatever stretches we can, and a bit of thicket crashing, to get to My Lake. At My Lake, it is nice to paddle again, and we take a late lunch along the south shore of this small, pretty lake. Salami, cheese,mustard, homemade bagel sticks... lunch can be a pretty good deal, and a welcome break! The bagel sticks and great dried tomatoes and herbs were the work of Tom's sister, who helped grubstake us.[paragraph break] Fed and rested, we paddled to the west end of My Lake and worked our way south over a saddle to Van. This involved taking packs and flagging a route by compass bearings up through brush and some ledges. We put down the packs part way up and went back for the canoe and 3rd pack. Had to 2-man the canoe up and through some of the brush, but Tom managed to 1-man it in other parts, farther along. (we pulled the flagging on this second trip). Tom picked the route up; although necessarily circuitous on the ground (to get around ledges, down trees, etc), it turned out to add up to a good straight bearing, overall. We did the scouting thing twice more (one more up, and then one down) and were really glad to come out to the bluewater of the middle north bay on Van. The last part picked up a game trail (? didn't see any blazes) that came down to the lake near a big white pine. After paddling about for a bit, we choose a rocky point near the south end for a campsite (there is another open rock slope on the peninsula just west of the bay pointing south towards Bewon). This one is cozy for the tent but works out just fine, with the blessing of a pair of loons out front. Still no luck at the fishing... I think it is about here that Tom starts muttering, and it ain't contentedly. At one point, he remarks that PMA must mean the fish are Pretty Much Absent. Hope he keeps his spirits up, as he carries most of the stuff and does most of the work. I allow that the solitude is the gift of the thing, and maybe get a grunt back (did I mention, Tom has a pretty good BS meter?).Galli dog don't care; she finds her spot near the tent and sacks out til dinnertime.[paragraph break] Tom whips up some eggs and couscous, and we are blessed with a beautiful sunset.


Day 7 of 10

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 A rain starts up during the night. Tom hears it and wakes me up and we get out and rig the fly over the tent (often have it pegged and laying to one side, if not needed). Pretty good thunderstorm and steady rain after 2am through the night. We slept in past 7am to drizzle and mist. Didn't fish, but broke camp and travelled south out of Van. [paragraph break]I think we bushwacked on the east side of the creek to Bewon. Then, south of Bewon, the blue shown on the map turned out to be marsh with creeks (=more carrying than I figured on). Tom scouted a route along the east side and through some woods (maybe old portage in a spot or two?) to meet the west end of Ledge. At one point I lost track of Galli dog; turns out she loped ahead to travel with Tom (guess who the slowpoke is, now).[paragraph break]At Ledge, we had exited the Mugwump PMA, but we weren't quite done with it (had a night reserved in Zone 1). We caught the portage west towards Cap Lake (the one with a branch that runs south to Boulder). At 186 rods, this is a pretty good carry, but it was a delight, after a few days of brushcrashing. From Cap, we portaged west to the creek into Roe and then paddled/ pushed through lily pads up the creek from Raven. Now back in the Mugwump, but the travel not as difficult, as there are some old portages going to Raven. We had been to Raven once before, and it is a pretty lake. Camped near the portage; this is not a usual thing for us in the Bdub, but it was a rock area that seemed least likely to show impact. There is an old campsite on the northeast part of the lake in a limited burn area (I had read that there was a prescribed burn in that area...[paragraph break]It was still misting, but we pitched camp and got out fishing. Tom finally got into a lake trout and I got out my little waterproof Olympus and started a video. It ran for about 30 seconds: the whole deal with bent rod tip and all... then a snap of line and "Son of a ...." on the audio (a classic short video, an all time favorite. We've all been there). Tom tied on another lure and we trolled for a few minutes before he got into another one. This one was landed (I have the longer video proof for that one, too), and the curse of the Mugwump was finally broken.[paragraph break]On bare rock back at camp, we made our first fire in the PMA in order to get some coals to bake the trout. This one seemed to have more orange flesh than lake trout from some of the other lakes on the trip. Galli continued to demonstrate superb enthusiasm for fish skin, and I think she got some proper fish, too (she is becoming a master of concentration and eye contact...).


Day 8 of 10

Thursday, July 26, 2012 We were up about 5:30 and out fishing. Cool, with clouds scudding across low from the east (uh oh) but some blue above that. Tom got another trout, and he baked that one for breakfast while I broke camp.[paragraph break]Just as we hit the portage out, the rain set in. This made for soggy travelling after a while, as the rain strengthened. Hunkered down under a poncho with Galli on the portage into Roe for some of the worst of it, and then we tried to keep Galli under the poncho in the canoe, as we backtracked to Cap. On Cap, we spotted canoes pulled up at the campsite (sensibly, these folks were tenting out the rain): first sign of anybody for four and a half days. On the portage from Cap to Ledge, we turned south at the well marked fork and headed for Boulder. This portage crosses a narrow pond (combination wading/walking canoe across) and then climbs up and over to Boulder. I think it was at the pond that we found a nice pair of abandoned/forgotten rain bibs, pretty good fit for Tom... I wonder if the original owner was still in the woods; they would be missing those bibs about now...[paragraph break] Paddling Boulder, we met a single canoe with three gals headed north. We pushed south over the carries into Adams and headed west towards Smite Lake. Being somewhat soggy and chilled, we camped early (about 2 pm, as the rain started to let up) on the northwest end of Adams, to make a fire and warm up, some. Got up the tent and a drying line, while Galli snoozed under the poncho.


Day 9 of 10

Friday, July 27, 2012 Rain again, last night, but this morning broke clear. It is a pretty route: portaging into Smite and down the narrow lake to portage along the flowage to Beaver (portage not marked on our Voyageur map, but right where it could be expected...), then down Beaver (a very pretty lake) to Trapline and into the Kawishiwi River west of Malberg. We portage into Malberg and follow the more regularly-used route south to Koma and Polly. On Polly, we take lunch and a swim and rig our rods to try some fishing along the Phoebe River, our next stretch. Turns out some of the Phoebe is just too shallow for fishing, though.[paragraph break] On the river not too far short of Hazel Lake, I make my dumbass move... We are doing a fair clip and, spotting a rock coming too close to do much, I panic into a cross draw that is pretty useless, but enough to dump us as we hit the rock. This definitely wakes up Galli dog, and she swims to shore as we swim/walk the canoe to shore. We help Galli up onto the shoreline sweetbay and leatherleaf bushes. Then we unload the packs and empty the canoe. Reloaded we paddle off to the nearby portage, only to figure out that the rods are not with us. Dang! We paddle back to the general spot and relocate the rock, then the rods in the water nearby. Back to the portage, again.[paragraph break] Originally thinking to get to Phoebe or Grace, we settle for the west site on Hazel just to get unpacked and check and dry stuff. Some of the gear is well-protected (the gear pack has a waterproof liner; the food pack is a rubberized sort of Duluth with a roll-seal top) while stuff in the seat packs,miscellany pack, etc., is pretty soaked.[paragraph break]Spread stuff out to dry, and it is mostly OK, but Tom's camera caught some moisture (even though it was in a supposed dry-bag)and is fogged on the viewfinder. This is a pisser, as it is a very nice Cannon SLR that Tom bought before the trip. Mainly my fault, as I dumped us, and by rights he should go bonkers over this... But he's a pretty mellow guy. Funny, though, he keeps tilting his head as if little guys were sitting on his shoulder and having a conversation... I kind of steer clear with other stuff until he occupies himself with cooking some cornbread.[paragraph break] Phoebe River so far has been pool and drop, but not very much flow.


Day 10 of 10

Saturday, July 28, 2012 We were up and broke camp and on the water by 8:30am. Traveled the route to Phoebe, Grace, Ella, Beth, Alton over to Sawbill. Did some trolling along the way, but raised only some small smallies. At the Ella to Beth portage, Tom gets to the end first and I meet him coming back with a load for a young family with two little girls who passed us going the other way. I get to the end and follow his lead, bringing the rest of their stuff. The little girls appear to be having a ball, and it is fun to help out and great to see these families getting youngsters into the woods. Got to Sawbill landing about 3 pm and carried stuff up to the Subaru. We dig out beers and, even warm, they taste great. Tom goes up to grab a shower at Sawbill Outfitters while I start packing and loading the canoe. 'Bout this time, I figure out what has been lost, this trip (no matter how careful, it always seems we leave something). It is a section of the 4-piece yak paddle that we carry for a spare. It was lashed under the rear seat, but apparently came out along some portage, somewhere. Tom says: shoulda put the lash cord through a hole in the piece... Dang! Wish he woulda said that about 10 days ago. [we never did break out that yak paddle, but it works well, per other trips]. Anyhow, we get loaded up and head down the road to try a little Temperance River troutfishing before the road south to Iowa and California...[paragraph break][Back at home, it isn't long before I am researching other PMA opportunities... I think I've spotted some good ones, and I email Tom about some of these. His reply: "sounds interesting but, I think portages to hell with fish pretty much absent are off my list." No problem, I've got a year or more to work on him.]


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