BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 08 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Our Sawbill Sojourn
July 17, 2017
Number of Days:
We woke up with the sun this morning at 5:30 AM, bright, early, and completely unable to feel our noses. I half expected to peek out my tent and see our camp site at the outfitters covered in a white blanket of snow. I concede now that this may have been an overreaction, but at the time, 45 degrees Fahrenheit (with a chilling wind to match) felt alarmingly frosty considering we had been swimming in 90 degree sunshine just less than forty-eight hours ago. I'm not altogether sure Northern Minnesota's version of July qualifies as summer...
It took heavily clenched teeth and a serious amount of grit to climb out of our warm sleeping bags but we pulled through. Even Dad, who finds pure joy in "roughing it," admitted how often the cold woke him up that night. You can imagine, then, our surprise over breakfast when Joey - 13 years old and much akin to the age - told us, after finishing his third blueberry bagel, that he had gotten so hot and sweaty in the night that he had to take off his sweatshirt, long pants, and socks! I knew from then on who I was snuggling with at night.
We quickly packed all our gear along with our still-stiff bodies into the two canoes and we were off, into the most authentic "great unknown" we had ever experienced (excluding my BWCA-seasoned father who was thankfully running the show). We made a point to get on the water as early as possible in order to claim the coveted, 5-star campsite that we had been eyeing for months. On the way out, little Davy presented me with a hand-picked array of flowers - what a sweetheart.
Dawn's gentle light no doubt added an enchantment, but how beautiful it was that morning looking out on Sawbill lake. It was as if the trees had not yet awoken, and, like us, were timid of the cool, crisp air, wishing to stay in their warm and cozy state of rest as long as they could before stirring awake. All was achingly still as we paddled across the calm water toward our campsite.
As for the official rating, '5-star' was accurate! A web of exposed tree roots created a natural staircase leading uphill to our spacious home for the next 4 days. Setting up camp was easy and quick; dad thought of just about everything we could need to feel safe and comfortable.
The boys could think of nothing but walleye, smallmouths, and crawfish all trip long. Too bad the biggest catch of the day was a rock! However, Davy assured us it put up a good fight. I suspect my brothers have a sense of male duty to provide dinner for everyone and will stop at nothing to give us a feast of fish.
No luck! Still no fish to show that day as thunderstorms and heavy down pours had reached their 45-minute mark. I looked out the small opening of our tent and our site had evolved into one large rain puddle. The floor of our tent felt much like a waterbed and Emma was beginning to think we would never again see the sun. We soon discovered there was a leak in the tent and one of the sleeping bags had gotten fairly wet! We'll say it was Joey's - he probably would have been too warm to need it anyways.
4:00 PM and clear skies at last! Psalm 124 was the responsorial psalm for Mass that day and it could not have been more fitting. True torrents of rain had indeed come through our campsite, but our spirits were not to be crushed that easily. The boys were already back in the water fishing. I think they're beginning to feel a time crunch for dinner.
Quotes of the day:
"It is PERFECT weather for being cold!" - Davy
"It came down so friggin hard...was it fun?" - Dad
"Wet dirt really makes you appreciate dry dirt." - Emma
After a fairly uneventful Monday night, we went to bed early and very much enjoyed a warmer night of sleep. Though the rain was over, the winds still howled throughout the night, which made us feel even more snug in our tents. Well, most of us anyway; poor Joey slept in an open hammock and found himself prey to the swarms of post-rainstorm mosquitoes. He's a resilient one, though, saying that he was ready and willing to sleep in the hammock again the next night. I envy his grit and spirit!
With the sun came a greatly satisfying breakfast of egg-beaters and sausage along with re-hydrated hash-browns. Seriously - it was delicious. It was also about this time that the three female members of the group were more than ready for a shower, given the amount of built-up bug spray and dirt that coated our limbs and hair. The showering process was a simple one: get wet, lather up, rinse, dry off, and proceed to coat oneself with a fresh layer of deep woods, 40% deet; ahh, refreshing!
Because Monday turned out to be a bit of a fishing bust, Tuesday was to be devoted to testing out new waters. The plan was to canoe across Sawbill and portage to Alton Lake, the much larger body of water to the West of us. We would fish there for a while and eventually make the arduous portage to Beth Lake to test the luck of our poles there. Two canoes, six people, nine fishing poles, and far too many bug bites to count: we were ready. 8:00 AM rolled around and we were off, sailing smoothly on the calm surface of Sawbill Lake headed toward Alton.
The portage to Alton was short and easy, but the trip across Alton Lake was a different story entirely. The wind had started to pick up and Alton's size was becoming more daunting by the minute. My already-aching shoulder blades can attest to the amount of heavy paddling we did that day - roughly 8 miles, but it was worth it! Each lake we explored was different from the last. There was Alton, awesome in size and ominous in nature; small Beth lake, with her crystal clear water where we all caught our share of small mouth bass (unfortunately too little to keep and cook); and familiar Sawbill, surrounded by the most green and tall pines I have ever seen, the loveliest home we could ask for.
One of my favorite aspects of the Boundary Waters has been the mere silence that comes with leaving behind everything man-made and electrically-powered. Every gentle breeze, every rustling leaf, every water ripple and bird song is perfectly audible and undisturbed. No car, phone, or even low hum of a refrigerator could upset nature's soft symphony.
One of our favorite sounds of the trip was the loon's cry in the mornings and evenings. We heard him often and I am sure he took notice of us as well. As we were making our way across Alton Lake, a friendly and playful loon amused himself by repeatedly diving under our canoes and reappearing on the other side of us a few yards away; he was showing off to be sure. He followed us for quite a while, popping up here and there around our canoes. I would safely say we made at least one good friend on our trip.
The smell of garlic bread and summer sausage gathered us all around our make-shift dinner table that night. Eight miles canoeing works up a serious appetite! Davy actually caught one walleye that afternoon and it had to have been the best fish any of us had ever tasted. Speaking of Davy, we believe he found his true calling and vocation on our trip: fire-tending. He stayed by our campfire for hours upon hours, attentive to the arrangement of the logs, making it his personal mission to achieve maximum burnage (can that be a word?). He for some reason thought it also necessary to sit directly in the line of smoke so that his poor eyes began to water profusely and his nose drip. So devoted.
Quotes of the day:
"Davy is our Diana, goddess of the hearth." - Emma
"You can't blame everything on your grandma!" - Davy
"Joey did the mosquitoes eat your face?" "No, just my legs and feet"
The loons woke me up at 2 AM. I somehow had still yet to take a moment to look at the stars, so I took my opportunity and wandered down to the lake front and enjoyed the best view of the heavens I had ever seen. The lack of all man-made light made the stars absolutely brilliant. I understand now how the Greeks could spend their entire lives studying the stars and plotting the constellations.
We all slept in until about 7:30 AM that morning and laid in bed a while before getting breakfast started. Pancakes, smoked sausage, and hash-browns were on the menu and it was heavenly. Really all the food was, and I think I know why. We cooked just about everything we ate in Parkay Squeeze. I'm not quite sure how I feel about squeezable, fake butter...yet all of our food tasted strangely amazing. Granted, it could also have been that we were all much hungrier than usual.
Wednesday was the day we had set aside to explore the Kelso loop! The plan was to paddle North up Sawbill, take the short portage over to the Kelso river, make our way through the water channels to Kelso lake, and then begin our search for the "Dolmen.' Apparently, long ago, dolmens were the Scandinavian version of a burial tombstone. It takes the form of one very large rock resting right on top of several little stones. The story is that, if this Kelso dolmen is truly the work of the Vikings, it completely changes our belief of Scandinavian history in the Americas, as this particular dolmen is dated to the 6th century.
Well, we found it! After navigating a tight water-way through beautiful marshes scattered with the most picturesque white and yellow water lilies, we found it. However, we were skeptical and we all had our different hypotheses for how that giant rock ended up on top. We decided it would have taken at least 15-20 large men to hoist it up, and even then, how are we to know these men were of Viking descent? A few of us believed it could very well have been another native people who placed the rock, whereas some of us thought that it was simply a freak accident of nature and that we were all wasting our time trying to guess who it was that created the monument. Either way, we had a great afternoon discussing its origin as we ate our lunch by the dolmen.
Another 4 1/2 hours of paddling and portaging were behind us as we returned to camp, only to head right back out to Alton to see if we could catch our dinner for that night. Our crawfish traps so far had collected about 35 of the little creatures, making for perfect bait. Alton looked clear and promising that afternoon and we were wildly hopeful. But alas; not a bite. Our only disappointment this trip was the fishing. We were so hoping to devour pounds of fresh bass and walleye! Nevertheless, the experience of the outdoors and the wildlife more than made up for our bad fishing luck. We were still loving every second of it.
6:00 PM and our favorite part of the day: dinner. Wednesday night's menu consisted of mac and cheese, freshly boiled crawfish, jambalaya, and salad - finally something green! By now, Davy was once again proving his unfaltering devotion to our campfire and kept us all nice and toasty. The boys planned to go back out fishing to try their luck one last time before our departure the next day; they just couldn't get enough. We were all feeling rather bittersweet that night about leaving our home away from home in those quiet woods. Perhaps we'd be back again some time.
Quotes of the day:
"Christina, you look like a complete taco." - Davy, sassily, as I lay half asleep in my sleeping bag
"Not wearing deodorant on this trip was a really good idea" - Joey
"I think it's been fun watching mom's hair grow" - Joey, as we reflected about the trip around the fire
Departure day! Also the day I turned 19. My sweet father last night took us out on the canoe at midnight to get a full view of the stars and to mark the moment I made him and mom parents. We would all miss those stars that reflected and danced on the water.
Taking down our campsite took no time at all. Everything was packed up and ready to put into the canoes to take back to the outfitters. Before leaving, we all sat by the water and spent some time just enjoying the view and the fresh air. We had to go, however, and so we piled in the canoes one last time. Paddling back was an effort due to the wind, but we all had just enough left in us to reach shore.
Do not think for a second we didn't all pay $4.50 each for showers at the outfitters. We'd never felt cleaner in all our lives. Clean, tired and still a little itchy, we were ready to go home.
Quote of the day:
"It was my sleep talking, not me, you have to shake me and punch me in the stomach!" - Davy upon learning that he had refused to wake up when we asked him to stargaze with us at midnight
Things I learned on our BWCA trip:
1. The art of skillful and efficient canoeing does not come to one naturally. I could have easily been considered the worst paddler in BWCA history Monday morning; after 2 days and 15 miles of water covered, I can confidently say that I'm not half bad.
2. Wool is the most beautiful and wonderful fabric on the market. It drys fast, doesn't smell, and regulates your body temperature.
3. From mini pizzas, to roll-up pb&js, to fried over the fire in Parkay and sugar, flour tortillas are perfectly versatile and make everything taste delicious.
4. Chacos are a girl's best friend.
5. Walleye is by far the best tasting fresh water fish around.
6. Bug spray is a gift from the gods. 100% deet may be "federally punishable by law if used incorrectly" according to its label, but it very literally saved our skins.
7. My family is awesome, incredible, wonderful. Okay, I already knew that...