BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 28 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Sawbill to Tuscarora Lake and back again
August 01, 2015
Number of Days:
We got out on the water from Sawbill Outfitters around 9 AM. We were shooting for a campsite on the north end of Cherokee so we headed out at a steady pace. Three of us had never portaged before, so we started by single portaging. At the other end we had a clearer picture of why people double portage. I have great respect for those who can carry a 50 lb pack and a 45 lb canoe for 100+ rods, it astonishes me every time. We found the second portage instead of beaver dam hopping the creek on advice from Bill, although another group pushed through the beaver dams to meet us at the portage from Ada into Skoop. We were warned that this Ada Creek portage was a goat trail, but we were still surprised when we got there. This was the rockiest and muddiest of the portages we would see on the trip, but not too long. After a quick paddle across Skoop we embarked on the 180 rod portage into Cherokee Creek. There was much more elevation change here as we crossed the Laurentian Divide. The creek itself was stunning. There were at least three types of water flowers on either side, and the creek felt more green and alive than many other areas we encountered on the trip. We got a nice primer in beaver dams here. We headed for campsites on the north end. Most campsites were taken, but luckily the one we were headed for was open. About 100 ft from shore, Ryan shouted "NOOOOO! My paddle broke!" I almost didn't believe him, but sure enough, I turned around and he was holding a piece of his rented carbon fiber paddle in each hand. One day in to our trip and we had a paddle break. Of course, we left the two extra paddles we had in the car because we were 'absolutely sure that we won't need them, since we were fine last year'. We made it into the campsite and set up our hammocks for the night. We sat down to cook and perform emergency surgery on Ryan's paddle. With some dead wood, some super glue, and some twine, we brought the paddle back into commission. We spent the rest of the evening being serenaded by the talking cedars. Two of the trees had large cracks and groaned loudly in the wind. One sounded as if it were a rusty metal hinge, not wood. Even set up safely away from them, the sound makes you look twice. A nice rainstorm rolled through, although we stayed cozy and dry in our hammocks and the trees ceased their creaking as the winds faded to steady rains.
We woke later than usual this day, and decided to set Long Island Lake as our goal for the day. We weren't confident enough in our makeshift paddle repair to push very far, and everyone likes short portages. Gordon was a wonder to pass through. The intermittent steep rock faces and sharp pines was a contrast from the softer forest mixed with aspens on Cherokee. There was a small surprise portage this day, which on the way back we learned could be easily navigated without hopping out. Long Island Lake was every bit as good as Cherokee. We made it early in the day and grabbed the island site on the north end so that we would be close to the 35 rod portage in the morning. We set up a nice wind shelter with a spare tarp and roasted franks and pepperoni over a fire. This was the first campsite that was inhabited by mice. These little guys were not afraid of humans and were darting across trying to snatch up some food. Luckily hanging packs is enough to thwart them. We went to bed after we feasted and watched the sun drop below the trees, ready for an early start to Tuscarora the next day.
We woke around 6 the next day in order to get to Tuscarora with time to spare. After coffee and packing we were on the water around 7:30. We easily pushed through past Karl (or another part of Long Island Lake depending which map you view) and Lower George. We hit some strong wind coming in to Rib Lake and through Cross Bay Lake. Portaging into Snipe gave us all our second wind. It was every bit as stunning as Gordon--I admit I have a soft spot for the smaller lakes--and the air was cooler as you pass through the south end. The portage into Copper was jam packed. We took Copper into Hub and got ready for the big 265 rod portage into Tuscarora. My husband and I ended up trading off our canoe a few times, but we ended at the beautiful sandy portage landing on Tuscarora and were rewarded for our efforts. The wind picked up as we searched for a campsite, painting the lake with white caps. I specifically told my husband I was not down for the white caps and the possible associated flipping that comes with the territory. My husband made an excellent point that we are most likely to capsize if we don't keep paddling and that was motivation enough for me. A group at their campsite was all facing out at us, probably wondering what the odds we'd capsize were. It felt like we were barely moving forward. Finally, we rounded the island and saw it was open. Total, it took us about 7.5 hours from Long Island Lake to Tuscarora, with the wind and heavy portage traffic. We had a delightful feast this night, with fried pepperoni, fried tortillas, bacon, and blocks of cheese. It was chilly and still very windy but this meal made us all forget that we portaged those 624 rods earlier. We broke out the whiskey since we made our destination. The weather radio informed us that our last day would be all rain and storms so we decided to skip the intended layover day in Tuscarora. Last year up the Gunflint we made a super soggy exit, so we all decided to avoid it this time. We figured we would have our base camp day 7 in Sawbill, and leave early if the rain would be an all day occurrence. We heard a loud crack and a thud when one guy went to sleep. We ran over and saw the tree he was on had fallen over. It fell on a corner of his tarp and luckily he wasn't hurt. We looked at the tree and saw it was a dead birch. He's very lucky to not have been injured, and that just goes to show how careful you have to be when setting up hammocks (or tents even). It may look sturdy enough at a glance, but you're betting your life on it. This was the coldest night, in the upper 40s, but our hammocks and DIY underquilts did the job as always.
We got packing early in order to head out from Tuscarora when we heard a call from the water. A forest ranger was at our site and came up to meet us. He seemed like a great guy, although I don't envy his job of pulling out latrines and fire grates as a BWCA experience. He checked our permit and chatted a bit and we resumed packing and set out for the 265 rod portage again. It seemed a lot easier to start our day with the long one instead of ending with it. The beaver pond in the middle is a break at least. We planned on stopping at Snipe or Rib today, but after passing through Hub, Copper, and Snipe with so much energy we decided Rib was it for sure. Unfortunately it was taken when we got there, so we struck down to Long Island Lake. We got another surprise when a bottle of olive oil exploded inside one of our packs. Only that oil and our supply of oatmeal was lost, but everything including the canoe yoke was covered in a slick layer of grease. Nothing to break in a new homemade canoe like getting it extremely dirty right? We stopped on the north side of the Long Island Lake by the portage (sometimes called Karl Lake) and called it a night. We were too tired to eat much, and had pizzas and hot apple cider before retiring under the stars.
We woke to a thick blanket of fog over the whole campsite. We were just planning on going to Cherokee anyway so we took our time with morning coffee. We waited for the sun to burn the fog away. My pack was still oily, but we had enough spare garbage bags to partition the good food from the unsalvageable grease mess. Bad things typically happen in threes we guessed, and with the broken paddle, fallen tree, and exploded oil we figured we were all clear for the rest of the trip, and we were. We took the short 35 rod portage down into Long Island and had a leisurely paddle down to Cherokee. We arrived in Cherokee before noon, and picked out the furthest south campsite in order to make our last day an easy one. We were the most tired this day, as we didn't eat much the day before and the hot sun encouraged us to find some shade. We made camp early and cooked some cheesy bacon hashbrowns for lunch. I don't think we even got up from our chairs until after dinner. We simply relaxed in the sunshine and breathed the powerful scent of the pines around us. We had quite a few people pass our campsite, looking dejected that they had to turn around and paddle back to the north end. With such a beautiful view at Cherokee, I'm not at all surprised at how busy the lake was. Also, this campsite had the worst latrine I have ever encountered. We called it the jungle bathroom because you literally had leaves in your face and bugs everywhere. I do not personally carry bug spray and blast the area before those duties, but others much wiser than I make a habit of it, and I think they are on to something. We checked the weather and decided to head back home instead of spending another night on Sawbill. We were in for thunderstorms and all voted against heading in soggy.
Another early start had us paddling back down Cherokee Creek, marveling at all the water plants. We were glad again to start with the longest 180 rod portage, so that the day would only get easier. We passed through Skoop and Ada again and began our paddle back on Sawbill Lake. Sawbill is nice and long, so we got plenty of time to enjoy our last views before we left the Boundary Waters. All of us had sore feet and shoulders and couldn't wait for a shower back at Sawbill Outfitters. We drove back to the cities through the storm, glad to be in a car on our way home. Our homemade kevlar canoe held up just as well as the Wenonah that the other two in our group rented. I was very happy with its performance, even if I felt the weight of the beautiful wood trim that pushed it up to 45 lbs. I enjoyed hiking Angleworm Trail a few weeks ago and am looking forward to sneaking in a September trip to the BWCA this year if I can help it. Perhaps next time I won't be portaging 2200 rods...