BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Lady Chain Solo with Dog: Report and Video
July 08, 2016
Number of Days:
I walk into the Tofte Ranger Station, and when given the can-I-help-you smile I say “I’d like a permit for today, please. What’s available?” The ranger seemed to like this, as did the young couple also about to start a trip that was I suspect more thoroughly planned than mine. I had with me a collection of maps for the area, and had checked availability just 2-3 days before and knew something would be open in the area. I get the last of 14 permits for the day for Sawbill and decide as I had hoped that I will explore the Lady Chain. With video rewatched, quiz taken, and permit in hand, I head up the soon to be paved Sawbill Trail.
The heavy morning rains have passed but the low clouds still look threatening. I’d camped overnight in a state park so my tent and tarp had been packed up wet. I arrive at the landing and unload my gear, then wipe off the water and dust from the bow of my new SRQ16 so I can apply the registration tabs. It’s a bigger boat than most like for solo, but I’ve rented them before and new it would work for me. I wanted my dog to have some space, and for a while now I’ve had designs on obtaining dog #2 which would really make a true solo problematic. [paragraph break] As I’m loading up the canoe I start chatting with a young woman who mentions that she used to work at Sawbill. I tell her that I am heading into the Lady lakes and am thinking about then doing the Louse River loop back around but wasn’t really sure. I like loops. She mentions that she liked that route, and that I should pay attention starting the upper loop as the navigation there can be a bit tricky.
I’m off and paddling around 1:00 - much, much later than I had hoped due to rain. The first portage to Alton is easy, but I still have that “gear isn’t quite packed right” feeling. I paddle down Alton seeing several camps and canoes, and hearing from several distant places “waaahooo” type sounds sometimes heard on popular entry lakes. Soon I’m glad to be portaging off of Alton toward Beth. I’ve got several new pieces of gear on this trip, and unfortunately quickly realize I’ve also packed a bit too much “back up gear”, and certainly a bit too much “back up food” as well. I’ve definitely brought too much stuff this trip.
The clouds look to be breaking up, and I decide to camp on Beth to let everything dry out. It’s warmed up and I certainly don’t feel like building afire, or even boiling water so I just open a pack of tuna salad and grab a couple tortillas - good enough. Into the now-dry tent early and time for some map checking. [paragraph break] Day 2
I wake up shortly after 5am to calm, warm air and mostly clear skies. There are single strands of spider webs floating out over the lake in the light breeze, just catching the sunlight. I make a bucket of coffee and have a bagel with peanut butter, and slowly start packing up but can’t hurry because its just so nice out. [paragraph break][paragraph break] I decide to head through Ella instead of the longer but more direct route to Grace. I paddle by the two campsites on Ella and think one looks pretty nice, then move over to the portage. Wow, I know I’m overpacked, but I found the portage between Ella and Grace to be one of my least favorite portages in the BW. It’s 147 rods, mostly overgrown, and most importantly the path is strewn with rocks and boulders so you have to watch every step and never really get up a good pace. There was no mud, but there was just enough elevation to annoy. It wasn’t so bad from a muscle standpoint, but nearly a half mile of constant careful foot selection made is slow and buggy. I was very glad to get my gear across, and even putting into the water was a challenge because of the large boulder field on the shore. Once in the water, there was no clear path out to open water without scraping and snagging several sub-surface rocks, each claiming a bit of the newness of my canoe.
But back on the open water and all was better. There were large mayfly casings floating all over the water, which maybe why some fishermen I had passed had had little luck. I had not been paddling very long but for some reason decided to stop at a site over toward the next portage on Grace. I rarely travel such a short distance in a day, but just didn’t feel in a hurry. It was very warm as I set camp so went for a long swim with the dog to cool off and clean up a bit.
The campsite had an interesting feature; a well torn up piece of sandy, rocky soil about 6 inches deep, 8 feet across and 4 feet wide, all maybe 8-10 feet from shore. There were several scattered and dried up turtle shell fragments near one end. I wasn’t sure if the turtle could have done that much damage, so guessed that a bear had torn it all up - maybe a few days before. Anyway, it looked like it was all done and I guessed a bear having found the nest would not leave any leftovers.
I have another light and fast dinner and am in the tent early for planning and reading. Here is when I make a fairly painful discovery. Thinking about the loop route, I fold and lay out each of 3 maps fitted together like pieces of a puzzle, but find that there is one piece missing! I’ve got the Sawbill over to Polly, then the Polly up to Koma and Malberg, but then there seems to be a gap of about 1-2 map inches before the next map, one of the custom Sawbill maps, fits back in. RATS! I THINK I see where I am suppose to turn back east, but I cant be sure that portage doesn’t lead to a dead end and that the next portage further north is correct. This is the area the woman on the dock had told me had some difficult navigation. Ah crud. After a bit of frustration and much false bravado (“Who need maps? Did Vasco de Gama have a map? Did the Voyageurs have maps?!”), overnight I yield to my situation and acknowledge that I am not going to make a loop this trip. OK. Slowdown and relax more. I’ll loop next time. [paragraph break] Day 3
Knowing that I really am not in a hurry any longer, I actually cook my breakfast, Ova Easy omelette with grilled spam on a toasted bagel. It looked just like the serving suggestion on the spam foil pack. At the moment I felt sort of proud of that, but that feeling has since faded. First spam I’ve eaten in maybe 30 years, but I was out to try a bunch of new things this trip.
It was sunny and warm, but the wind was clearly picking up. I lounged around wondering if I would even pack up in move. I wandered over to the torn up soil and noticed something had been there digging over night. There was a deeper hole maybe 3-4 inches around and maybe 6 inches deep, along with two newly revealed turtle eggs in tact! I thought maybe an otter had dug the whole, but what would leave the eggs there? Were they rotten or something? I’m still puzzled by this.
I do end up packing up and heading out about 11am, a very late start for me. I get into the river system between Grace and Phoebe and it is just beautiful. I love these sorts of river systems. At the end of one of the short portages a beaver slapped his tail just off shore, and my dog immediately heads out after it. I am not sure if he had seen or smelled the beaver, or if he thought a giant stick or duck had fallen for him to retrieve, but out he went. Fortunately he has good recall and he turned back to shore on command. Beavers aren’t to be messed with. [paragraph break] [paragraph break] [paragraph break] [paragraph break] I get to Phoebe and the winds are quiet stiff, but I am able to hug the north shoreline across and then follow behind islands south a bit to a nice campsite mostly blocked from the wind. With camp set, I paddle a short distance away to find some firewood and inspect the blueberries. The berries were almost all hard and green. There was a small pile of frustrated bear poop right next to them. As I clear a line of trees I see dark clouds are forming up again to the south east - more rain is coming. Fortunately it would hold off until after dinner, but it surely did come in with hard rains in the evening and periodically overnight. [paragraph break] Day 4
Since I wont be looping, I decide I’ll stay here on Phoebe for a day or two before heading back. After a simple breakfast I pack up some day gear and the dog and head off to see what Hazel looks like. Again I love the narrow river system, which again makes me squirm about not being able to do a full loop. There is moderate wind and low, dark, wet looking clouds but so far its fine. I pass through a moderate rock garden - each scrape is still killing me but I have to get past that. I come to a second and more dense rock garden in the river and am puzzled. There is clearly no way to pass through this, and I see no portage or pull-around spots. Finally off to the right side I realize that crews have actually moved rocks and boulders to create a narrow, straight channel through. I simply could not see this at first, and don’t think I remember seeing such a channel anywhere else in the BW that I have been. I get to the portage to Hazel, and it too is very overgrown and wet. Its also starting to drizzle and threatening to get heavier. I put on rain gear and we walk across to Hazel, but the the bugs are very bad on the other end of the portage so we do not stay long before returning.
As we get back I can see a line of gray that looks like heavy rain. I toss up my small tarp I made just for such purposes to get me and my dog Regent out of the coming rain. It’s just 7x7 feet, made of 1.1 oz silnylon with a pullout cord on each end. It fits in my pocket. Oddly, I realize what I saw coming was not heavy rain but fast moving fog, like clouds moving across the ground. I only recall seeing something like this in the mountains. There is a slow rain, but not the heavy stuff I expected. I repack all and we head back through the rock gardens and up river toward Phoebe.
Back at camp I build a fire and start tossing dinner together. I’m finally actually cooking, and tonight is special because its the first time I am using food I have dehydrated myself. I soak hamburger in once cup and some sliced raw garlic, onions, and green peppers in another. I sauté the veggies in olive oil with some thinly sliced chorizo sausage, add in some stock, saffron, Spanish rice, sun dried tomatoes, and olives, then toward the end the hamburger and some peas. A lot of the ingredients are what I would use to make paella, but I had not been fishing so with the inclusion of hamburger will not call it paella - just a rice dish - but a very good one I will say.
More rain comes in after dinner, and this time some lightning and thunder. I was just 3 weeks after the Father’s Day storm, so I was more aware of the lightning than usual. I also had at this campsite, like each of the others, taken note of which trees I thought looked most suspect and where I might go if the winds get that strong. I’ve never done this on trips before, but think this is the new normal. [paragraph break] Day 5
The skies are clearer and things have dried out, but it is very windy. I make pancakes - another cooked breakfast - and just wish the blueberries were a bit further along. This is my first trip with a barrel, and I have to say it is certainly easier than hanging a bag though I am always thinking Im about to crush a finger with that latch. The dog and I pack up our day stuff and head out to paddle around a bit, but the winds are pretty strong outside of the protection of my little bay area. We get to explore a few areas, and occasionally get out to collect some prime firewood and explore the woods, but this is not a day to venture out into the bigger, open part of the lake. We stay close, and more time today is spent reading. [paragraph break] Day 6
The winds stay firm all night long, so when we get up around 5:00am the tent and tarp are already dry. We - well mostly me - pack up and are on the water paddling by 7:00. The winds are already pretty stiff, but I figure they will pick up more as the sun gets higher. Very fortunately for me, the winds have shifted and are no longer out of the south southeast, but are more southwest. Not bad since I am heading northeast. Clear of my little bay the winds hit me squarely in the back and we start to move across the lake at a pretty quick pace. Its at these moments Im especially glad that Regent seems to lose interest in things when we get more than 100 yards from shore and tends to lay down and nap. The waves get bigger and I can feel we are almost starting to surf them till we finally round a small point and they just stop. Im always amazed at those places where 25 yards to one side of your canoe the water is barely rippled and to the other side there are tall whitecaps.
Back we go through the lovely river system, then across Grace with the winds almost dead at out back again. We go back up and over the portage I had disliked so much days before, but I’m finding that with a few pounds less food (not just me, but the dog’s eating about 1.25 lbs a day) and having found my portaging legs, the portages on the way back are passing quite easily. I’m starting to like the wider Canadian style Teal yoke that I selected. On longer portages I used a shaped piece of blue closed cell foam between the yoke and my pack straps, but on anything shorter I just tossed on the Duluth pack and the canoe right on top and went. I rather liked it.
I set up camp on Ella, not quite ready to head back. I I thought the open site would be nice and I found a good patch of ripe blueberries. Unfortunately as I set up camp I also realized it was a pretty messy camp, with a bit more trash and junky tree cuttings than normal. I also realized the fire pit was set up backwards, with logs set so your back was to the lake and a big pile of rocks set to protect from east winds though the site was on the east side. Oh well, the blueberries outweighed all this. I cleaned up a bunch of trash, spatula, spork, rope, tinfoil, and full and empty packs of drink mix. Clean up was not hard, and I had no interest in a fire tonight, especially as more rain came in. I cooked up some ramen with hamburger, olives, tomatoes, and a few other bits on my stove and was done. Then off to bed just before more heavy rain. [paragraph break] Day 7
There were moderate winds and steady rain all night. We got up fairly early and got out of the tent. As I fed the dog under the tarp, the rains started picking up and the wind had shifted to more west northwest. I took a moment to lower one side of the tarp and raise the other a bit, then got under as the rain came again. Finally I decided it was raining hard enough that I lost my interest in coffee, so the dog and I ran back to then tent and went back to sleep for about 2 more hours. This proved a good move as the rains had then passed though the winds persisted. Mainly, though, I my urge for coffee was back. I had my java and a quick cold breakfast, then broke a wet camp, trying to be careful to remove all the slugs from my tent, fly, tarp, and groundcloth. I found if you flick them too hard they basically pop, so a gentle touch was needed.
I portaged back to Beth and moments later portaged back over to Alton. Portaging now felt easy again. Ill have to work harder to get that “piece of cake” feeling closer to day one than day 6 next trip.
As if I had not already had some luck, the winds briefly calm down as I paddled up Alton. I paddled up the west shore with little wind or wave concern. On a point I paddled past one last west side point with a occupied campsite. I could hear them in there chopping and banging pots, and thought I passed just 20 yards or so away I don’t think they ever knew I was there. Then, expose to the wind, I turned east and crossed over to the last portage. A quick hop across and we were back on Sawbill where the wind pushed me right back to the dock.
There was just enough space at the dock to pull up between several outgoing canoes being loaded. While they talked I made two quick trips and had all my gear and now “seasoned” canoe in the unloading area. I’m not sure, but think that the weight of food I put back in my car would probably equal the weight of dry food at the start of a trip being made by a more thoughtful packer. With a short walk Im at my vehicle and a fresh supply of dog treats, a bag of potato chips, and a can of Castle Danger tucked under the seat. Loading was quick, and after one last dog paddle to clean some muddy fur, we were on our way to Duluth for Pizza and then home. [paragraph break] Here is the 5 minute video version on Youtube.... https://youtu.be/Kqsr-2N5vUE