BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 31 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Two Dads, Two Kids Sawbill
August 28, 2015
Number of Days:
Our plan for the trip was to basecamp for a couple days on Alton and then play it by ear as far for the last few days.
Day 1 - The rain stopped by morning and we got our canoes, maps, and bear barrel from the outfitter. Pretty busy morning at the store and at the landing, but we were off around 9:30 or so with a south wind helping push us to the portage to Alton. We were targeting a campsite on the north side of Alton that supposedly had a "backdoor" to the Kelso river. Not surprisingly, the campsite was taken so we went on to check out the campsite closest to the Kelso lake portage. This was open but not a good site...only one good tent pad and a kitchen set back with no good view. We had our lunch and discussed options and decided to make our way south along the western shore of Alton and take the first decent site we found.
Site after site was taken. When we got to the third site down we were informed that both peninsula sites and the next site past were all occupied. A bit disappointed we set across to check sites on the East shore, only to find those also full. Feeling a little defeated, we were resigned to the fact we might have to settle for the site we had lunch, so back across we went, only to find someone else had pulled into that site as well. Instead of going all the way down to the southern part of the lake we decided to take the short portage to Kelso and see about the closest site on that lake, as our first day plan was to day trip up the Kelso river.
Thankfully, that site was open. It was also a very nice site with good tent pads, a nice open view, and a little swimming area at the landing. We set up camp, had a snack and then tried our first little bit of fishing. I was encouraged as I caught a very small northern fairly quickly, but as it turned out, it was our one and only fish for the entire trip.
While out in the lake we scooped up some water for my make shift gravity filter system that I had set up and Joe pumped all our water bottles full with his filter. My system worked, but it was pretty slow..still have some more tinkering to do.
After supper everyone took some time to relax and I had some quality hammock time in my new hammock. It was a warm, humid, and hazy night...which turned out to be the theme for the trip.
One thing about this campsite was the number of different groups that would paddle by. A number of day trippers returning to Alton, a kayak group headed north, and a new one for me - a group of paddleboarders headed north, complete with gear strapped to the front of their boards.
Day 2 - Today we took a nice day trip up to Zenith. We paddled up Kelso Lake, saw the Dolman and all the Pitcher plants up to Lujenida. At the portage to Zenith with set the Canoes way off to the side and hiked the 480 (or is it 460) rods to Zenith. Great hike and we enjoyed a little lunch at the other side as well as a little dip in the lake to cool off as the day was becoming hot and humid. It appeared this is where our paddleboard friends set up camp as we saw them paddling back and forth over in the east part of the lake near where the campsite is.
When we returned to camp it was time for some full on swimming and then a quiet afternoon enjoying "Camp Kelso" as we called it. Refreshed from the swim and the breeze coming into camp everyone had some quiet time reading I grabbed a book and retreated to my hammock. I think I made it about 2 sentences in before nodding off for a solid BWCA nap.
Had a relaxing rest of the afternoon and evening.
Day 3 - After another night with not much sleep due to Allergies, Joe decided he would take Jack and paddle back to the outfitter in the morning to get some allergy medication and rent a better sleeping pad. Lewis and I paddled over to Alton to see if we could catch a fish or two for lunch.
The south wind a picked up a bit so Alton was a little tricky for fishing, but we managed a couple of nice controlled drifts with leeches along both the west and east shore. No luck. Lewis and I returned to Kelso and tried there for a bit with just a couple of little bites. Joe and Jack returned by lunchtime, with Joe already feeling much better.
While we had grown to like our camp, the consensus is that we would move to see some other areas. After weighing some options the decision was to move camp to the north part of Sawbill so we could go for a daytrip up to Cherokee the next day. We set our sites on the island campsite and broke down camp. The paddle/portage over was uneventful and we enjoyed the tailwind up Sawbill. The force was with us as we found our campsite of choice open, and a great campsite it was. Upon arrival Joe said "Welcome to the Ritz"...and the name stuck. Incredible view, open kitchen, nice spread out tent pads.
After another failed attempt at fresh fish we settled for whatever we had and had a nice quiet time in camp while the kids explored some of the trails around the camp. A quick dip in the lake was necessary to cool off before bed as it once again was a warm humid night.
Experienced just a few showers overnight...was hoping for something more substantial to indicate some time of relief from the humidity.
Day 4 - Awoke to another soggy morning with some big plans for the day - a trip up to Cherokee! We had breakfast and headed out early on a dead still lake, hoping to be back before the worst of the day's heat.
We had a small maps made up by the outfitter with some more specific details for the portages up to Cherokee. I had read about the waist deep mud and was hoping armed with these maps we could avoid that unpleasantness. As it turned out, the only real issue we encountered was some ankle high mud coming out of Ada creek.
At the 180 rod portage into Cherokee creek, we encountered a Conservation Corp work crew clearing branches and cleaning up the portage. We learned they had recently done work on the dreaded portage between Ada and Skoop lake...making the "detour" portage the main portage, adding rocks and timbers in the most muddy parts.
Paddling Cherokee creek was definitely a highlight, felt like we should see a moose at any time. Really a neat area. Cherokee lake was really beautiful, although we didn't paddle too far into the lake before finding a nice open campsite for lunch. We took plenty of time, with everyone cooling off in the lake and sitting on the rock enjoying some pita and tortilla sandwiches and the wonderful view. For really the first time the whole trip we where treated to some clear blue skies and the wind seemed to be trying to shift more to the west.
After lingering for a while we decided we better start heading back. On the way back we had our first real setback as at the landing from Cherokee to Skoop I realized I did not have my camera. While we felt like we did a good sweep when leaving our lunch site we must have missed it and the camera was still sitting there. Lewis and I started back the 180 rod portage to retrace our steps as Joe and Jack said they would cross Skoop and wait for us at the much more shady landing on the south side.
Our spirits were pretty low as we trudged our way back to Cherokee creek. While it had maybe slightly improved, the day was still warm and humid. We started paddling the creek, not looking forward to the 2-3 mile paddle ahead of us and fearing the camera would not be there. In the back of my mind I was still pretty sure I had put the camera in my pocket, so I was keeping an eye out for the couple of places on the creek where I had to step out to work around the two old beaver dams on the route. When we got to the second beaver dam sure enough, Lewis spotted the read strap to my thankfully waterproof camera! It was right where I would have stepped out. This saved us most of our paddling, but we still needed to hit that 180 rod portage one more time.
We caught up to Joe and Jack, who had enjoyed an hour of shaded relaxation waiting for us. By this time the crew was wrapping it up and was following us out. We let them pass us on Ada lake, which turned out to be fortuitousness as we were able to see how to avoid the ankle deep mud at Ada creek. During this return trip was really the only time the bugs were bad enough to bother me, as some biting flies (both black flies and a couple of deer flies) we hanging around the muddy parts of the portages.
Both Lewis and I were absolutely exhausted by the time we got back to camp around suppertime. Joe thankfully stepped up and took care of the cooking duties as I retreated to my hammock to rest and like my wounds...some nice raw sores on my feet and a nasty little case of chaffing that I would rather not think about.
supper was devoured and everyone agreed that Joe should just cook some more as we were all still hungry. The evening was the least warm and humid of the trip and the sky was clear enough where we could do some stargazing. Needless to say, it turned out to be my best sleep of the trip.
For the day we did 450 rods (810 for Lewis and I!) of portaging and about 7 miles of paddling. Although it was without full gear, it is a promising sign that future trips could be a little more ambitious.
Day 5 - Another dewy, foggy morning. Looked like some rain pasted off to the south as we heard some distant thunder. Settled into a mostly overcast warm, humid day with light wind again from the south.
After the adventure the previous day everyone enjoyed a slower pace this morning. The light winds allowed the two boys to try their hand at canoeing together..didn't go great but they at least tried. I used a rock for ballast and had a wonderful little paddle around our Island and along some of the neighboring shoreline. Tried one more time to have some fish for lunch, but it just wasn't our trip for catching fish.
Our original plan had us moving camp to one of 2 campsites closest to the outfitter as Joe and Jack needed to be back to Eagan by 5:00PM the next day. After discussing what that timetable would mean for packing up in the morning we realized we might as well spend most of the day where we were and just paddle out later in the afternoon. This allowed us to pretty much dry out everything before packing up instead of rushing with wet stuff early the next morning. We also were able to have a hot lunch as all of us we pretty much done with salami and cheese. We took our time and had everything packed up not too long after lunch.
As were were getting ready to leave and had tasked the boys to pick up every little bit of garbage they could find we had a visit from the rangers to check our permit. That was another first for me after 20+ visits (First BWCA trip for the other 3). Had a nice little chat and they asked the boys if they would come back. I think both Joe and I were both very happy with their enthusiastic "YES!". The ranger also seemed very glad to hear that as they said they really want to see more younger visitors. He said there is a concern as the bulk of visitors are getting older.
The canoes were loaded and we pushed off from the Ritz, with another group hovering just waiting to take it over. We had a wonderful long leisurely paddle back to the outfitter. We checked the gear in and took some desperately needed showers before hitting the road home. We hit up Do North Pizza in Two Harbors (very good little hole in the wall) for supper and arrived home at 10:30pm.
NOTES: Overall a very successful trip that had us all talking about going back the same time next year if not sooner. Would have preferred it about 20 degrees cooler with much lower dew points, but hard to complain when we have virtually no wind or rain and bugs were almost not existent. The fact the boys loved it was the really good news. Next trip will most certainly be much more of a loop.
Lakes visited: Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake, Ada Lake, Zenith Lake, Skoop Lake, Cherokee Lake