BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 18 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Pictorial Trip Report - Spartans and Helots
September 05, 2012
Number of Days:
The roots of this trip go back a number of years, and the Internet is deeply implicated. For the last decade, I have been an avid participant in various online forums focused on canoe tripping in the Boundary Waters and Quetico. And that has led to quite a few real-life friendships for David and me with others who share our love of canoeing and the canoe country. Among those friends are Lynda (Spartan2) and Neil (Spartan1).
Canoe trips in the Boundary Waters have been a special part of Lynda and Neil's life together since they were a newlyweds some many years ago. That history speaks to David and me. And so we knew it had to be hard for them when they were forced to put their canoe trips on hold for several seasons when Neil was on dialysis. After a kidney transplant, the Spartans were able to go back to the wilderness. But then Lynda found that paddling and portaging had become harder for her, creating a new impediment to longer trips with more difficult portages.
Now they wanted to return to Cherokee Lake, and specifically to a campsite with twin points that they had stayed at in 1992 and 2002 - a pattern they hoped to continue in 2012. But Lynda worried they could not get their on their own. Neil was willing to do all the portaging for both of them, but Lynda thought that would wear him down. (Having done most of the portaging on a trip when David was recovering from a sprained ankle, I can attest that it does take a toll.) So she asked David and me if we would come along and help them on the portages. We were only too happy to say yes. I joked that we were signing up to be "Helots" to the "Spartans." (For those of you who have forgotten your high school history of ancient Greece, the Helots were "a class of serfs in ancient Sparta, intermediate between citizens and slaves.")
David and I had never been to this part of the Boundary Waters before, and it seemed like we might want to explore on our own after getting to Cherokee Lake with the Spartans, then return a few days later to make our way back to the entry point with them. So we all decided we should get two permits to give us maximal flexibility. David and I like to adjust our trip concept as we go, so we were happy to see what happened and play it by ear. Everyone also agreed that the Spartans and we would plan our food and other gear separately, since each duo had its own preferences and habits after many wilderness canoe trips.
Not long before the trip to Cherokee, David and I took our puppy Piwi on her first trip to Quetico. That worked great, so we wanted to bring her on this trip too. Lynda and Neil said that would be fine - though I'm not sure they knew what they were in for.
Lynda is a wonderful and avid photographer. So David and I knew that she would beautifully document our trip. At the same time, we were paring back a bit on our own canoe trip photography last summer. As a result, our photos from the trip are a little sparse, especially for the first couple days. (I should probably label the first days of the report "semi-pictorial.") Fortunately, Lynda has posted her own report of the trip with lots of good pictures. I suggest reading her report with this one, day by day. Spartan2's report can be found at this link.
And with that preface, we are off . . .
Day 1 - Wednesday, September 5, 2012 -
We planned to meet Lynda and Neil at Sawbill around 9:30 in the morning of our entry date. That would allow us enough time to drive from Ely while still getting on the water at a reasonable time. The drive is surprisingly long, especially with last summer's Highway 1 detour, so we got up and left the house before dawn.
A few hours later, David, Piwi and I pulled up at Sawbill Campground and Outfitters. Piwi had to stay on a leash here, which was really hard for her after getting up early and driving several hours without a walk. It didn't help that the outfitter's terriers were running around unleashed and were not as welcoming to Piwi as they might have been.
We tied Piwi up outside the outfitter headquarters and went in to get our permit. While we were inside, Lynda and Neil appeared, and we reacquainted ourselves with each other while we watched the video about wilderness ethics. I think we were all a little apprehensive as well as excited, because we were about to embark on a wilderness trip with people we knew, but not that well. The grey skies (with hints of blue), periodic spitting rain, and gusting wind added to the sense of heightened adventure.
Permits in hand, we headed down to the Sawbill dock to load up our canoes. We tied up Piwi nearby as we loaded up - something she is not used to. And so she chewed through her brand new leash in a matter of moments. That's the first (and last) time she'd ever done that. I had to count our blessings, though, in that this is probably the only Boundary Waters trip we have started with a store right there. So I walked back to the outfitters and bought a new (somewhat pricey) leash, just in case we needed it on the trip.
Finally, around 11:00, we launched on Sawbill Lake -
As I mentioned, David and I did not take a ton of pictures the first couple days of the trip. So I am including the next one despite my moronic grin because it's a nice picture of Piwi and (more importantly) it's our only picture from the first day with Lynda and Neil, even at a distance -
Our plan for the day was to camp on the north end of Sawbill Lake, an easy day with no portages, to prepare us for the longer trek into Cherokee tomorrow. Lynda and Neil had been through here a number of times, so David and I were happy to follow their campsite recommendations. We aimed for a site tucked behind an island that was both open and well-suited for our group. (Lynda's report includes some good pictures at this site. David and I failed to take any photos there.)
We set up camp, had lunch, and visited with each other as the skies cleared - at least for the moment. Then, after lunch, David and I took Piwi out to hike some portages. So far today, the poor pup had only sat in the car, been on a leash, and sat in the canoe. Piwi is a rescue mutt of unknown parentage, but one thing we do know is that she descends from "energetic" breeds. Without some walking, no one was going to be happy. Plus, David and I could use some leg stretching too.
So we set off to explore some of the portages we would cross on our way to Cherokee tomorrow. (Our afternoon paddle is marked in blue on the map above.) First we paddled to the northeast tip of Sawbill Lake and a 90-rod portage along Ada Creek. Since our goal was leg stretching, we just hiked this portage round-trip once. Then I carried the canoe back across to continue further up Ada Creek.
This picture looks back towards the portage from the creek -
And here are some of the scenic cliffy spots along the creek -
Further upstream we approached the next portage, which goes into Ada Lake. Our friends Heather and Marshall (Wilderness Mama and Papa) had mentioned that one of the portages in this area could be bypassed by paddling up the creek and pulling over a big beaver dam, and we thought this was the portage they were talking about. But since our current objective was walking, we aimed to find the portage. It required paddling up a marshy stretch of creek -
Then we hiked this 90-rod portage as well. It goes up then down again, and is mildly rugged. At the end we looked out over little Ada Lake, which we would paddle across tomorrow -
Piwi did her best imitation of an herbivore at the Ada Lake end of the portage -
We hiked back across the portage to the canoe, and noticed that the clouds seemed to be gathering again -
Piwi was absorbed in her own world of water, sticks, and rocks -
Continuing back toward camp, we paddled back down Ada Creek and then crossed the portage back to Sawbill Lake. The sky was getting a little greyer, but the light was beautiful -
We stopped on the way back to the campsite to gather some firewood. Then a little squall blew in, which was surprisingly powerful given that we were on the lee side of the long point at the north end of the lake protecting us from the west wind. The stormlet abated as we rounded the end of the point and returned to our campsite and the Spartans.
The rest of the day and evening was passed with dinner and enjoying the company of our trip mates. I was surprised that all the other campsites on this busy entry point lake seemed to be unoccupied. Then we turned in early, tired from our pre-dawn start on the day, and wanting to be well-rested for tomorrow's expedition to Cherokee.
Distance traveled Day 1 - 3.5 miles from the entry point to the campsite, plus 5.1 miles (including all trips across portages) on the post-lunch daytrip with Piwi.
It was a lovely morning at our Sawbill Lake campsite. Lynda got up around dawn to take pictures, and that got me out of the tent to make our morning coffee. The temperature was probably in the mid-40s, with mist rising off the lake.
David and I were relieved to find out that Neil and Lynda take a similar approach as us to packing up in the morning - which is to say, they like to take their time too. They also cooked up fresh eggs and shared them with us. That's a nice treat! They had fresh eggs for pretty much the whole trip - they are carried in a container under the stern seat of their canoe to protect them.
We got underway paddling about 9:45. Today we would see how David and I measured up as portage Helots. Our first test was just around the corner at the north tip of Sawbill Lake - the first 90-rod portage we took Piwi walking on yesterday afternoon. This portage is smooth and flat, so it made a good place for a trial run.
We had worked it out so that David and I would each take two trips across the portages with our own gear, and then make one more trip with packs for the Spartans. With return trips between loads, that added up to five trips across all the portages for the two of us. In the meantime, Neil made two trips with gear - their canoe on one trip, and a pack and miscellaneous gear on another. Although Neil was only carrying gear twice, the pack he carried was a real bruiser - I tried it on one portage and decided to leave it for him the rest of the trip. Se he was doing about as much work as us. Lynda made one trip across with her camera gear (which is not an insignificant load).
That all worked just fine, and we were soon on our way up Ada Creek to the second 90-rod portage that David and I had crossed yesterday with Piwi. Since David and I had taken pictures on our outing through here yesterday afternoon, we didn't take any this morning. In fact, our picture taking was pretty pathetic on this day. Fortunately, Lynda took lots of great photos, and our own effort improved on subsequent days.
This second portage was considerably more rugged than the first, with a fair amount of ups and downs over rocky outcrops. As mentioned, our friends Heather and Marshall (Wilderness Mama and Papa) had recently been up to Cherokee Lake and told us one of the portages in this area could be bypassed by paddling up the creek and pulling over a big beaver dam. We thought this was the portage they were telling us about, but we weren't sure, and the marshy creek looked like a bit of a maze that we could get lost in. So we placed our bets on the sure thing and took the portage. But as David and were picking up the last packs to carry across on our final trip across the portage, we saw a canoe heading up the creek. And sure enough, by the time we had completed the portge, loaded up, and paddled out onto Ada Lake, that canoe was coming up the stream (which meanders pretty far from the portage in between). So it took those guys about as long to paddle up the creek as it took us to make one of our five trips carrying gear on the portage. We would have to try the creek on the way back later in the week. It would be easier pulling over the big beaver dam going downstream anyway.
Out on the lake we briefly talked to the group that had paddled up the creek, two two-man canoes. It was funny, because although they seemed to have outsmarted us getting to Ada Lake, they seemed to have no clue whatsoever about where to go next, as if none of them knew how to read a map or navigate. We pointed the way and went ahead toward the next portage, which would take us to little Skoop Lake.
Our various maps were in serious disagreement about the length of the portage to Skoop, suggesting it could be anywhere from 10 rods to 100 rods. Since we had a lot of portaging to do today, we were happy to learn that 10 rods was the more accurate number. We bypassed the alleged longer stretch of portage by paddling up a narrow marshy channel -
After transporting our gear across the short portage, we decided we had better stop for lunch before tackling our next and last portage of the day, which would be a long one. The Skoop Lake end of the present portage had a nice flat rock area where we could eat without blocking the portage landing. That was a good thing because it was pretty busy while we were there, with the four-man group we had seen on Ada Lake passing in our direction, and a friendly chatty couple going the other way.
After lunch we paddled up Skoop Lake to the long portage to Cherokee Creek. According to my GPS this portage is about 230 rods - longer than indicated on the maps. That added up to more than 3 miles for David and me on our five trips across, which took about a hour and 40 minutes. I didn't mind carrying three loads over the up-and-down of this portage, but I do have to admit that it got a little repetitive by the last trip across. At least Piwi was getting plenty of exercise. In the meantime, at least one group passed us by on their way to Cherokee Lake. I think this was when I joked "just don't take our campsite." We also chatted with two cheery women valiantly single portaging in the opposite direction, one of whom posts on bwca.com sometimes as canucanu2.
Eventually we completed this carry and began paddling down scenic and marshy Cherokee Creek. It had clouded up in the meantime (I think it might have even sprinkled a little during the last portage) -
It wasn't long before the creek deposited us at the south end of Cherokee Lake. The Twin Points campsite that the Spartans hoped to revisit was just around the corner. But as it came into view, we realized it was occupied (I think by the same guys to whom I joked not take "our" campsite). That was a disappointment for the Spartans - Lynda especially. Fortunately, another excellent campsite was unoccupied up on a big rock slope across the bay, and we claimed it for the night. Maybe the Twin Points site would open up during the next couple days.
We got to our site about 3:15. While we were setting up camp, Piwi went exploring. She reappeared full of excitement carrying . . . something. We quickly realized it was the hindquarters of a hare, which must have succumbed to some other predator. There didn't seem to be much harm in Piwi running around with the rabbit piece - until we saw her rolling all over it back in the woods. Since David and I had to share our tent with her, we decided the rabbit had to go. But it wasn't easy to get her to give it to us. And she certainly was not happy when we hopped in the canoe with it (but not her) and paddled to a nearby islet where we tossed the battered pelt up on shore.
After that we finished setting up camp, and David and I went for a dip to rinse off the grime from the portages. We still had plenty of time to enjoy the view from our elevated campsite as the sky vacillated between clear and overcast -
Another view into the channel behind our site -
After dinner, Lynda and Neil shared their strawberry cheesecake with us, which was yummy. We sat for a while with our bourbon, then hit the tents a bit after dark. We had a cozy campsite setup -
Total distance for Day 2 (including all trips across portages) - 10.8 miles.
Lynda got up around dawn, - so naturally Piwi decided we had to get up too. It was a cool and mostly cloudy morning. We lazed around drinking coffee followed by breakfast. Piwi "helped" the Spartans with cooking and cleanup -
After our longish travel day yesterday, Lynda and Neil planned to stay put today, in hope that the twin points campsite across the bay would open up for them. David and I also planned to remain here another night, because we wanted to explore Cherokee a bit. Our friend Heather aka Wilderness Mama was doing a Cherokee campsite evaluation article for the Boundary Waters Journal, but when she and Wilderness Papa were on Cherokee a few weeks earlier, she was unable to find two of the numerous campsites on the lake for her evaluation. So when Heather found out we were going to Cherokee, she asked if we would search out the two missing campsites and gather the needed information for her. That sounded like a fun excuse to explore, so of course we said we would do it.
As we had already whiled away much of the morning, we decided to break our exploration into two parts. Before lunch we would go try to find the first site for Heather's evaluation, which was somewhere nearby. Then we would come back to camp for lunch and coffee, before heading out for the more distant evaluation site and some portage hiking.
From our own campsite, it looked like the Twin Points site might have been vacated during the morning, so we also paddled past it on the way to our first evaluation campsite. If the site was available, we would signal back to the Spartans so they could begin moving their gear over there. Alas, when we got right up to the site, we could see a food pack hung up in the woods. It seemed the crew that was camped there had just gone out on a day trip.
Next we searched for the site for Heather's evaluation. She had been using a somewhat older map and thought that's why she couldn't find it. But we also couldn't find it at the two different spots marked on our newer Fisher map or the very new Voyageur map. Undeterred, we kept searching the shoreline of the back fingers of the south bay of Cherokee until we found a rocky spot that looked like it had seen some trampling through the years. We tied off the canoe to investigate -
Yep, this was the site. Although it looked very rarely used. Maybe because it is marked wrong on all the maps. And also because it's not one of the best campsites we've seen. We took pictures and some video clips for Heather to use in writing up her article. I also made a GPS waymark to the pinpoint the location, which is shown on the map above as "Site Eval 1." (Unfortunately, I neglected to make a GPS track of our paddling routes for this day.) Although it's not the greatest site, it's probably worth keeping in mind as a backup if you are ever looking for a place to camp at the south end of Cherokee and everything else is full.
It started raining in earnest while we were reconnoitering the campsite, and even though the rain stopped on our paddle back to our own site, the weather did not look too promising. So when we got back to camp we set up our rain tarp -
Piwi closeup -
This was a good decision, because every time some blue sky blew over us, it was quickly followed by threatening clouds, a cool breeze, and sometimes more light rain -
Coffee after lunch helped to keep us warm. But it still got chilly sitting around the campsite. The best cure for that is being active, so eventually we got our afternoon reconnaissance mission underway.
In addition to checking out the second campsite Heather had missed, we wanted to do some portage hiking. Neil sent us in the direction of the portage to Sitka Lake, which was part of an overnight loop through the Temperance Lakes that David and I could take tomorrow and the next day if we wanted. This portage begins at a steep spot on the Cherokee shoreline - but there are stone steps that ease the initial climb from the landing (an amenity that we are unaccustomed to from our Quetico trips) -
We stashed the canoe and went for our portage hike. All three of us enjoyed stretching our legs along the scenic trail. Judging from the pictures we took, fungi in various earthtones appeared to be the highlight.
Type 1 -
Type 2 -
Type 3 -
Type 4 -
By and by we arrived at pretty Sitka Lake. It's a smaller lake and much of the shoreline was low-lying and sprucey -
Piwi exploring -
"I'm one good-looking dog!" -
While we were hanging out there we noticed a canoe coming from the direction of the portage from North Temperance. We thought our portage was the only other route out of Sitka and the canoe would therefore head our way. But instead it went toward the south tip of the lake, where little Sitka Creek flows out. That made us wonder if the you could paddle Sitka Creek from Sitka Lake to Cherokee Creek. Does anyone know?
After lingering a bit longer we retraced our steps back to Cherokee Lake. This is the view out over Cherokee from the (comparatively sheltered) portage landing -
From there we paddled up to the second campsite Heather had missed. She had told us she thought it might be behind or next to a small beach, and as we approached the area, there was a narrow strip of sand there (although the sand would be submerged with slightly higher water levels). We landed to investigate -
We found the campsite a little ways back in the woods from the south end of the strip of sand. This site was a bit nicer than the other one, but still nothing to write home about. We documented it's features with photos and video for Heather and took a GPS waymark ("Site Eval 2" on the map above). We thought this fungally ornamented stump next to the main tent clearing was kind of cool -
Once we finished our documentation, we paddled back across Cherokee and down its western shore, exploring some back bays along the way.
Back at camp, our tarp came in handy at dinner time when it decided to rain (as it had on and off during our afternoon excursion). The Spartans made some extra dessert which they shared with us and was very tasty. We never have dessert except a few cookies on our trips, so shared desserts were a special treat this trip.
The rain mostly let up after dinner, with maybe a light mist from time to time. Neil stoked up his campfire, and we all enjoyed some camaraderie enlivened by healthy servings of Maker's Mark. The fire and firewater conspired to warm us against the elements on this autumnal evening.
Talk turned to our plans for the next couple days. David and I wanted to go for an overnight excursion somewhere. If the Spartans opted to stay on Cherokee the next couple days, then we thought we would explore the Temperance loop Neil had suggested. But Lynda had also mentioned that they might like to go up to Frost Lake for a night. If so, then we would happily go there instead, especially since the Spartans could use help over the long portage into Frost. David and I were completely flexible, so we left it up to them, and particularly Lynda, who would sleep on it overnight.
We turned in well after it got dark, happy for the shelter of our tents on this cold, damp, blustery September night.
Our second morning on Cherokee dawned with heavy fog. Lynda took some good photos of the scene while I concentrated on my first cup of coffee -
Neil got a nice campfire going again (he puts a few larger logs on one side of the grate to corral the burning wood and embers in a smaller space for cooking) -
After a while I asked Lynda and Neil if they had decided what they'd like to do the next couple days - stay put here in hopes the Twin Points campsite would open up, in which case David and I would do the overnight Temperance loop, or all go together to Frost Lake. Lynda opted for Frost Lake. She hadn't thought they would go beyond Cherokee, but now the prospect of doing so attracted her. Hey, it's not everyday you have Helots to help on the portages! Sure, the Spartans might miss out on the Twin Points site if it opened up while we were gone. But there was still a chance of finding it open when we returned from Frost to Cherokee tomorrow. Neil is easy-going and happy with any plan, so of course he agreed, and so did we.
We tore down camp and packed up our gear to get underway. Just as we were loading the canoes, it started raining in earnest. Neil thought it looked like the rain was settling in for the whole day, and from the looks of it he could have been right. As it turned out, it did rain intermittently, sometimes hard, sometimes as fine mist, throughout the day. But we also had some good stretches without rain, although, unlike yesterday, we didn't see much blue sky in the rainless interludes on our way to Frost Lake today.
Though the weather was not ideal, it was better for paddling than for sitting around. A huge bonus was that we had a light but steady tail wind blowing us up Cherokee, which is a major boon on a larger lake. This picture captures the atmosphere of much of our trip up Cherokee (although the water looks remarkably calm given our helping tailwind - maybe we were in the lee of an island here) -
Toward the north end of Cherokee, we passed a group that was unloading their canoes at a campsite. They told us they had come from Frost (how do others get going so early?) and had left the "beach campsite" open. That sounded good.
Soon we were at the short and easy portage into Gordon Lake. By now it was time for lunch, so after carrying our gear across the portage, we paddled over to the southern campsite on Gordon to eat. The campsite was so-so, but provided a good lunch stop.
As we continued up Gordon after lunch, we snapped a picture of Neil and Lynda during a break in the misty rain. I like this photo -
Gordon is a very pretty lake. As we got closer to the portage to Frost, we neared a rock formation the Spartans had described as looking like a smiling face. David and I thought it looked more like a rabbit -
Soon David and I arrived at the portage take-out. But it took a while for Lynda and Neil to catch up. It seems there was a loon that needed photographing (see Lynda's report for the nice results).
This is the view from the landing on Gordon during one of our return trips on the portage - misty, autumnal, beautiful -
I enjoyed this 140-rod portage. Although it was still pretty well-traveled with a nice tread, we could tell we had turned off the main route as we made our way through the wet and verdant forest -
On one of our return trips for more gear, a glistening fungus growth on a tree caught David's and my eyes. Lynda did not notice this until our return trip tomorrow, because you could only see it going back from Frost to Gordan, which her one-way trip didn't allow today -
There was a grove of big cedars at the Frost end of the portage (midget provided for scale) -
The portage ends at a beaver pond named Unload Lake, which is kind of like the antechamber for Frost Lake -
We paddled across Unload, pulled over a beaver dam, and entered Frost Lake proper. As we started down Frost, I surveyed the scene through my binoculars, and could see a camp set up behind a beach all the way at the west end of the lake. I thought this was the "beach site" we were heading for so that we might be in for another campsite disappointment. But as we paddled a little further, it became apparent that Neil and Lynda were hoping to snag a site on the north side of Frost where they had stayed before. It was open, and it was a wonderful site, so we claimed it for the night.
After we had settled in, a few "blue clouds" appeared over the beach in the bay to the north of the site -
As the sun started coming out in earnest, it actually got a little toasty purifying water -
Piwi enjoyed catching a few rays -
I tend to like grey misty scenes more than most people do, but I have to admit, you feel good when the sky and light gets like this after a couple wet days -
Drying out -
Dinner and nightcaps were topped off by a brilliant sunset -
A minute later -
Taking in the scene -
Lynda does most of the Spartan photography, but Neil can't resist sometimes (with good results) -
One last sunset shot -
A beautiful end to a fun day.
Distance traveled Day 4 (including all trips across portages) - 8.4 miles.
Lynda had already been up for a while when we got out of the tent at first light on Frost Lake. It was a beautiful cloudless morning - a first for this trip. The lakeshore lit up as we enjoyed our morning coffee -
During breakfast, the Spartans shared the last of their fresh eggs with us as a tasty treat. Then we packed up camp. For some reason the rain tarp was really soaked, top and bottom, so it took some extra effort to take it down and shake it out without getting ourselves soaked too.
David and I were ready to launch before Lynda and Neil. Since the two of us had never been on Frost Lake before, we thought we would use the extra time to paddle out and investigate the lake's most prominent landmark, a big rock that seemingly rises out of nowhere in the middle of the water. Close up we could see that there is actually a larger shoal on one side of the big rock. But it's still an odd and interesting formation -
The Spartans were loading up as we returned from our mini-excursion. Then we began retracing yesterday's route back to Cherokee Lake. With the beautiful blue sky, everything looked completely different from yesterday's shades-of-grey theme. We took this picture of Lynda and Neil paddling ahead from the beaver dam separating Frost and Unload Lakes -
After the short paddle across Unload, we began our five trips back and forth across the longish portage back to Gordon. It was very pleasant in the cool dry weather.
We had not gone far, but after the portage it was already time for lunch. So we paddled over to the northern Gordon campsite to eat. If I recall correctly, this northern site was a bit nicer than the southern one we ate at yesterday, though maybe the weather played a role in the impression each site made. But neither site was all that great, which is kind of a shame, because I thought Gordon Lake itself was a beauty. This is a shoreline view looking back in the direction of the Frost Portage -
Another view of the Gordon smiley rabbit -
We enjoyed the rest of the paddle south on scenic Gordon and then quickly dispatched the short portage back into Cherokee. The north basin of Cherokee looked expansive under the blue sky -
The wind had reversed direction over night, and so for the second day in a row, we enjoyed an easy tailwind as we paddled the length of Cherokee. That's not something that happens too often, and we savored the experience.
As we traveled down Cherokee, a couple of loons allowed the Spartans to paddle up next to them for photographing, and then they were joined by a third loon too. David and I tried to take some meta-photographs of the loons being photographed, but none of them turned out. (By contrast, Lynda's photos of the loons turned out great - see her report for those.) But we did get this decent shot of the Spatans paddling Cherokee around the same time -
As we neared the south end of the lake, I hoped to find a particular campsite open that I had noticed when David and I did our Cherokee reconnaissance a few days earlier. (This site is marked "Swim" on the map above.) If the Twin Points site was also open, we could let the Spartans have a night there to themselves, while we stayed at this other site. And if the Twin Points was occupied, then we could all stay at the other site.
The good news as we approached my target site was that it was available. The bad news, though, was that when the Spartans' Twin Points site briefly came into view in the distance, I caught a glimpse of something that looked like people there.
The Spartans naturally wanted to paddle down to the Twin Points to see if it really was occupied. So David and I decided to unload our packs in a prominent location at our site to claim it, then follow Lynda and Neil down to the Twin Points to check on it. When we unloaded our packs we took a closer look at our site. It was very nice, with a great view - but it only seemed to have one decent tent pad. That would be a problem if all four of us needed to camp there. Well, we would cross that bridge when we came to it.
Leaving our packs at our site, we followed the Spartans to the Twin Points. We could see that it was in fact occupied, and Lynda was talking from the Spartans' canoe with a man on shore. Then we were surprised to see Lynda and Neil paddle to the second of the twin points and get out on shore. It seemed they had secured permission for a little photo shoot of each other from one twin point to the other - a reenactment of what they had done two decades ago and again one decade ago when camping at that site.
Spartan photo op -
Ho Ho and Piwi waiting offshore during the photo shoot -
While we waited, David and I conferred about our camping plan. We didn't think it would work for all of us to stay at the site where we had left our packs. Fortunately, the high site where we had already stayed for two nights was open again. As Lynda chatted with the guy staying at the Twin Points site, we decided to paddle over and claim the high site either just for the Spartans (if we stayed at the site where we left our packs) or for our whole group, depending on what everyone wanted to do.
Once they were done with their photos and chatting, Lynda and Neil paddled across and joined us. The group decided we might as well all stay at the high site again, since it was a pretty nice site and accommodated the group comfortably. So David and I (and Piwi, of course) paddled back to the other site to get our packs. While we were there we enjoyed a swim in the last of the direct sunlight hitting the shore. This is the view looking out from our swimming site -
Soon we were back at our old trusty site setting up camp. It cooled off pretty quickly as the sun lowered behind us and cast the camping area in shade -
I enjoyed a little quality time with Piwi -
Later on we had some "bad dog" amusement when David found Piwi snarffling around the entryway to the Spartan's tent. It seems that she found a bar of soap there and was busily consuming it when she was busted. Eating soap is one of her strange puppy predilictions. Fortunately, it never seems to do her any harm. Also fortunately, Lynda and Neil got a good laugh and didn't seem to mind the consumption of half their bar of soap too much.
Over dinner, Lynda reflected on how the trip had turned out differently from her original hopes. By going up to Frost Lake, the Spartans missed the opportunity to lay claim to the Twin Points campsite when the previous occupants left, before it was occupied again. But now she thought the trade was well worth it, because the trip had become much more of an adventure than she had imagined it would be. She also remarked on how friendly and kind the guy at the Twin Points site was to let them take pictures there and share a little reminiscing. (It seems there was another guy at the site too, but he had retired to the tent the whole time the Spartans were there.)
We enjoyed more conversation over a little bourbon as the sky began to darken -
Then we made it an early night in preparation of our longer day back to Sawbill Lake tomorrow.
Total distance traveled Day 5 (including all trips across portages): 11.0 miles.
Piwi and I were the first ones up this morning, crawling out of the tent while it was still dark. I needed the headlamp to get coffee going. But we were rewarded with a fireball sunrise glowing through dense fog that had covered Cherokee lake overnight -
David was soon up too, and got this picture of me communing with the mystical scene -
The fog was so thick that the sunrise almost looked like fire and smoke engulfing the opposite shore -
A Piwi interlude -
The mist slowly rose, providing a glimpse of the forest across the water -
Eventually the fog lifted completely to reveal a mostly blue sky with a few scattered clouds. We finished breakfast and packing up around 10:00, then got underway back toward Sawbill Lake.
Linda and Neil paddling up Cherokee Creek toward our first and longest portage of the day -
This photo shows the takeout at the creek for the 230-rod portage back to Skoop Lake - a spot that we will always remember because of what happened on our last trip across the portage (see below) -
The bright sunshine made our five trips across the portage cheerier than when we had gone in the other direction a few days ago. I particularly liked the view into this mature black spruce bog that the trail passed by -
I was a bit less enamored of this stretch -
David and I were taking a short break after our first trip across the portage when Neil got to the end carrying the Spartans' canoe (note the convenient stone steps down to the landing) -
Looking out from the portage over little Skoop Lake -
We were making good time on our multiple trips over this portage. Then near disaster struck as David and Piwi and I got back to the Cherokee Creek end to pick up our last load of gear. Just as we got to the creek, Piwi ran off into the alder thicket that flanked the trail, on the scent of who-knows-what. When she didn't heed our calls to come, we made an ill-advised decision to start back across the portage and let her catch up, on the theory that she had to learn that she couldn't expect us to just wait for her if she ran off. But as 20 rods became 40, then 60, then 80, with still no Piwi, we grew increasingly concerned. Finally, we realized we needed to go into puppy-search mode. I dropped my pack and started back toward Cherokee Creek, calling for Piwi as I went. In the meantime, David continued forward on the portage, just in case Piwi had passed us by in the woods and continued to the far end, where she might be waiting with the Spartans.
I got more and more worried as I got closer to Cherokee Creek without locating Piwi. Then, just as I got to the landing, I saw a flash of orange through the foliage - Piwi's CFD! My elation turned to momentary fear again when I realized there was a Kevlar canoe at the landing that was the same color as the CFD - maybe that's what I had seen. But then Piwi came into sight next to the canoe. What a relief!
The young couple who belonged with the canoe then told me where they found Piwi. They had just cleared the small beaver dam a little ways down Cherokee Creek and were headed for the portage landing when they saw a dog swimming downstream toward them. They said it was the most amazing thing they saw on their trip! Piwi turned around to swim with them back to the landing, and around that time they heard me calling for her. Piwi and I were both very, very happy to be reunited.
I was really surprised and dismayed, though, that Piwi had gotten so confused that she had started to head in the wrong direction and actually started swimming down Cherokee Creek when she got back from her unsanctioned hunting expedition. Later, when David and I discussed it, we thought maybe the sound of the couple paddling led her astray, and she swam down the creek thinking it might be us paddling away. On the other hand, maybe she got confused on her own, and if the couple hadn't happened to be paddling up to the portage just then, who knows how far in the wrong direction she might have gone. Anyway, I thanked the couple profusely for rescuing her. As we talked, I noticed they had non-Minnesota accents and asked where they were from. The woman was from Germany, and the man (if I recall) was from south Asia, although both were working in Minneapolis. This was their first wilderness canoe trip and they were loving it.
Piwi stuck close to my side as we made our way back across the portage. I stopped to pick up my pack where I had dropped it and, further on, we met David walking back from the far end. Not surprisingly, he was really relieved I had Piwi. As I mentioned in my Quetico report, we have been working on her training this winter, and I feel pretty confident that there won't be more incidents like this one on future trips.
The Spartans also heaved a sigh of relief when we showed up at the end of the portage with Piwi. And although Piwi can sometimes be a little hard to get to load up in the canoe after we've gotten all the gear in, this time she jumped in her place in the stern the moment I set the canoe in the water, before we had put a single pack in. She was not going to be left behind!
Disaster averted, it was time for lunch. We thought we would eat at the same rock ledge where we had had lunch going the other way a few days ago, by the portage landing at the other end of Skoop. But as we headed in that direction, we saw the spot was occupied. We looked for another lunch spot but didn't see anything suitable. So we joined the two guys at our rock ledge lunch spot. They were just starting on their own trip, and seemed to take a liking to Piwi. I know she liked them. Then again, she likes everyone.
After lunch we carried our gear across the short portage, paddled down the creek to Ada Lake, and decided to bypass the next portage by following the creek over the big beaver dam Heather and Marshall had told us about. This picture looks down the creek as we started toward the dam -
The beaver dam itself was several feet high. It seemed that Lynda and Neil had never pulled over a big dam like that on their trips together. We helped Lynda out of their canoe and down the dam, then helped Neil pull their canoe over, then helped Lynda get in after Neil maneuvered the boat around. Then we pulled our own canoe over. Lynda was able to get some fun pictures of this, which appear in her trip report.
We continued down the winding, marshy creek, and at one point David and I had to jump out on another, very, very low beaver dam and pull our canoe over. We thought we would save Lynda and Neil the trouble of getting out their canoe by also pulling it over while they were in it when they got to this low dam. But for a moment it seemed like we did that too rashly, because as we were pulling their boat over, it briefly buckled, and I feared we had cracked a rib in it. Fortunately, it came through unscathed. I guess this was a day of near-misses and teachable moments about situations to avoid in the future.
Soon we were back to the wide part of Ada Creek and the last, 90-rod portage into Sawbill. Since David and I had made four trips across this portage for exercise with Piwi our first day, then five trips across to transit gear our second day, and now another five trips across going back, we figured it made the all-time record for the portage we had crossed the most times in a single trip.
Before launching into Sawbill Lake, we briefly discussed our plan for finding a campsite. When we came through here several days ago, we had the north end of Sawbill essentially to ourselves. At that time I noticed several sites that looked good from the water, not to mention the excellent site we had actually stayed at. So I thought we could afford to be a little choosy. In addition, my very cursory observation from the water of the northernmost site had suggested it was at best so-so. So I thought we should not bother to check whether it was free, and should go to check other sites first. Lynda, on the other hand, leaned toward taking the first site available. But as we left the portage, we passed the northernmost site by. I don't know whether it was free. It may have been. Or maybe it was occupied by unseen campers.
In any event, as we started checking the other sites at the north end of Sawbill, site after site was occupied. On top of that, the wind had blown up pretty strong during the afternoon, whipping up the waves and making for suboptimal conditions for paddling to and fro to check campsites. After we struck out several times, Lynda expressed frustration that we had not checked the first site. But going back now didn't seem like a reasonable option.
After we found the first few sites occupied, David and I made forays to a couple other potential sites while Lynda and Neil waited in the lee of an island. When we paddled over to the site where we had stayed our first night, it seemed like we might be in luck. But then a camper and his dog appeared on shore. Suddenly Piwi perked up, and for the first and only time on our canoe trips with her, climbed up on the packs in the middle of the canoe to bark at the other dog. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like having a good-sized dog stand on top of your canoe packs while the boat is being tossed around by big waves. We got Piwi back to her spot without mishap and returned to Neil and Lynda.
We then split up again, with the Spartans paddling down the slightly more sheltered west side of the lake while David and I checked for empty sites on the east side. I thought we were going to end up finding nothing and have to spend the night at the Sawbill Campground, which is just outside the wilderness boundary at the south end of the lake. (Hmmm, they have hot showers, don't they?) I have to say, this experience reinforced my preference for canoeing in Quetico, where there is no pressure to grab the first campsite you see after 2:00 or 3:00 for fear that everything will be taken if you don't.
But then David and I found an unoccupied campsite in the back reaches of a little secluded bay on the east side of Sawbill. It wasn't a five-star site or anything like that, particularly in terms of places to hang out by the water (none to speak of). But it had good tent pads, lovely forest, it was tucked away from wind and traffic, a nice little kitchen area, and most of all - it was open.
We left our packs at the site and paddled back out to the mouth of the bay to signal to Neil and Lynda that we had a site. It was hard to see their canoe as it came down the west side of the churning lake sparkling in the bright sun. Eventually we spotted them and waved our paddles overhead to flash in the sunlight. Soon they were heading our way. We were all very happy to find a home for our last night.
After setting up camp, David and I went for a dip to wash away the day's grime. It had gotten pretty warm, and we had done a lot of portaging, plus a little sweating in the campsite search. Then we settled in for a pleasant final evening of our trip -
Later in the evening a pack of wolves sang several times somewhere between us and nearby Smoke Lake. If I recall correctly, Lynda and Neil had never heard wolves before on their many canoe trips, so this was an extra special treat for them. David and I kept our eyes on Piwi to make sure she stayed close by, and gladly let her in the tent early when she wanted to go in.
We had a great final evening. Big and little disasters had threatened a few times today. But all's well that ends well. We finished our rations of bourbon as dark fell and the wolves sang their final chorus. Then it was time to crawl in the tent for our last night out.
Total distance traveled Day 6 (including all trips across portages): 10.5 miles.
A little light rain fell on our tents in the wee hours of the morning. But by the time we got up, the sky was blue again. This picture looks down the little bay where our campsite was hidden on Sawbill -
With just a couple miles to paddle out to our cars, we were in no hurry this morning,. We had coffee and breakfast, and Piwi and I went exploring along the bay shore. Here's a scene from our kitchen area -
By and by we got on the water and paddled south down the lake. Conditions were much more benign than yesterday afternoon. The birches on the shore told us summer was ending -
A final picture of me with my trusty stern companion -
And Neil and Lynda -
In short order we were back at Sawbill Campground. It was a hub of activity, with groups starting and ending trips.
The four of us had decided that we would finish our own trip with a lunch at the Trestle Inn. If you have never been there, it is an unlikely spot in the middle of nowhere (even by the standards of this remote region) on the network of gravel "highways" between Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters. We loaded up the cars and got underway, cruising down the back roads and kicking up clouds of dust. But when we made the final turn onto Lake County Highway 7, we promptly ran into a "Road Closed" sign. We couldn't get to the Trestle Inn from here. At least not directly.
We conferred and figured we could still get there via a lengthy detour over other back roads. Since we had our hearts set on it, and there was not really any other option before we parted ways with the Spartans heading down to the North Shore and us going back to Ely, we decided the detour was a worth it. Somewhat later than anticpated, we arrived at our destination, where we enjoyed some nice cold beers with our hamburgers.
Over lunch we thought back over our trip. It had been a good journey. David and I really enjoyed getting to know Neil and Lynda better and sharing this experience with them. Piwi obviously did too - the Spartans showed so much sweet affection for her. It was too bad that our friends did not get to stay at the Twin Points campsite again. Instead they had some adventures they hadn't counted on when the trip began. But I think we all agreed, that's what canoeing in the wilderness is all about.
Total distance paddled Day 7: 2.4 miles.