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BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

September 27 2022

Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake

Sawbill Lake entry point allows overnight paddle only. This entry point is supported by Tofte Ranger Station near the city of Tofte, MN. The distance from ranger station to entry point is 25 miles. Access is a boat landing at Sawbill Lake. This area was affected by blowdown in 1999.

Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Latitude: 47.8699
Longitude: -90.8858
Sawbill Lake - 38

Mom & 2 young sons

by CharChar
Trip Report

Entry Date: August 21, 2017
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 3

Trip Introduction:
I (38yo mom) wanted to take my boys (9 & 12) on an adventure, same as someone did for me when I was that age. So we left the toddler home with the husband and were off! I was actually amazed at the feedback I got from people when I initially started planning this trip. I wish I could say it was all positive, motivational advice, but let's just say I stopped mentioning the trip and planned in silence with my boys. For you first-timers out there: you know better than anyone else what you can accomplish. Portaging is not that hard if you pack in multiple, lighter bags. Canoes are so much lighter than they were 25 yrs ago, if I can carry it, you can carry it. I am not known for my strength by anybody and there are many places to set down canoes half way.

Day 1 of 5

Monday, August 21, 2017 We had spent the night at Sawbill Outfitters and were surprised at how nice those sites were! We were also surprised how far out they are and that eating out that night was not going to happen. A pack of hotdogs and buns would have to do. Not being morning people, we set out at 9am the first day. It was so calm we couldn’t tell where the islands ended and the water began. We cruised through Sawbill Lake and single portaged to Ada Lake. We had some trouble finding the Ada Creek portage partly due to the 9yo navigating and the 12yo insisting we couldn’t possibly make it around the bend thru the shallow creek. This ended up being a highlight though, since after the second 180 degree turn we saw a turtle pass right beside our canoe with a shell at least 12” in diameter. The boys are still talking about this.

We missed the eclipse. It was hazy at 12:30 and then cloudy.

The portage to Scoop Lake was a bit troublesome. We decided to double portage the rocky path and my 9yo fell behind. I went back to get him after setting down the canoe to find him on his back between two boulders “like a turtle on his back” (his words). He was panicking a bit, but became sheepish when I leaned over and reminded him there were clips on the front that he simply had to unclip. Getting the 25lb pack back on him on future portages would be an argument not often worth having, though he would take it a few more times. As we portaged into Cherokee Creek, it began to rain, but we still stopped for our after-a-difficult-portage-candy. I mentioned to the boys that it was supposed to be a lovely creek, but none of us noticed as we paddled ferociously toward Cherokee Lake. We came into site 901 at 4:30pm and began setting up camp. We all were completely amazed at how beautiful a campsite it was. Either the BWCA has gorgeous campsites or we are used to really bad ones. We underestimated how long it would take to get the water flowing, cook dinner, wash dishes, make a fire, set up the tent, and get the bear rope up. The bear rope. We found out that we are absolutely terrible with the bear rope. Our slight frames (barely 300lbs between us all) just wasn’t working trying to pull a rope that was at all restricted by other pine branches. If we had anything but an absolutely clean pull, we just couldn’t do it. We tried 2 people pushing up the food bags, 2 people pulling, all 3 pulling, paddles, jumping, squatting, standing, you get the picture. We got it 8 ft in the air and decided that our bags were fairly scent proof and we could make it back home tomorrow with no food and warmed up by the fire before bed. Every time someone went out to the bathroom at night, we asked “food still there?” This would be a common occurrence throughout the trip. That night my 9yo was tired and cold and crying of homesickness, he said the Boundary Waters were not at all what he imagined and was a bit surprised that I had brought him so far from civilization (I think the lack of wifi was the most incredulous) I did my best to calm him and said we’d talk in the morning.  


Day 2 of 5

Tuesday, August 22, 2017 I woke up that next morning so sore I nudged the 9yo and said I was all about base camping here a few days after all. He immediately popped up and said “But I wanted to see that campsite at Long Island Lake!” Okaaay…kids. Moving the 12yo took a little more convincing and I said I wasn’t going to go anywhere until I had a hot cup of coffee in my hand for 20min. It was already windy at 7:30am and I was not looking forward to the paddle across Cherokee. It was the 12yos turn to cook breakfast and he hates cooking, as he frequently repeated. It was 9:05 before the coffee was in my hand. We started across Cherokee staying east of as many islands as we could. We stopped at campsite 897 for the latrine and the boys scoped the site. Now the 9yo begged to stay here rather than moving on and the 12yo insisted on continuing to Long Island. Again, kids… We continued on, but left the option open of camping here the following night instead of on Long Island for the 2 nights we had planned. My research told me that Cherokee was a popular lake that we should expect to be crowded, but we only saw 1 other site occupied and 1 other paddling the whole time we were there. We headed thru Gordan Lake and ran into a couple whose picture I recognize from a trip report here, but couldn’t remember their screen name, so hi! If you are reading this. We muddled our way around the beaver dams and reached a fairly crowded Long Island Lake. We skipped the 1st unoccupied site in hopes of getting site 565. My 9yo had seen a few pictures of this site and really wanted to stay there. The site was open and it was exactly as the pictures indicated. We were all incredibly happy to have made the trek. We actually liked watching people come and go thru the sandy portage. I hung the hammock, took many pictures, but couldn’t convince the kids to go swimming since they were chilly and the 9yo had found a leech on him during the last portage. Oh well, I wasn’t willing to go in either. This time, we worked faster, earlier, and got everything set for the night by 7PM, again if “set” is a food bag that is at least moderately hard for a bear to get to. I think we would have been better off wrapping the rope repeatedly around the bags to slow him up. Like a puzzle game.


Day 3 of 5

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 We decided to compromise the next day by not staying 2 days on Long Island, but leaving after lunch instead, counting on Cherokee being just as sparse as before. The trip back was easy and warm enough that the boys played in the water a bit at the Cherokee portage before we headed to site 897. From across the lake, we could see another couple heading into the site so we knew we were out of luck. The boys checked out site 898 but turned it down (we had become spoiled) before heading to site 891. What another beautiful site! I don’t think we can go back to the BWCA without hitting Cherokee Lake again as we couldn’t get over the views. There was a nice supply of firewood here and the 12yo immediately started cutting more wood. He had really taken to this job and I was so happy to have a task that I didn’t have to worry about. Then the 9yo surprised us by starting the fire himself AND cooking us dinner. Wow, so even though every portage he seems to carry less and less and become more and more exhausted with just the weight of the paddles and life jackets, at least he can make fire and boil water on a stove. I had also insisted that he navigate from day 1 even though he didn’t know how to read a map, and by day 3 I only questioned his directions half the time and he could find north, so I shouldn’t be so hard on him.


Day 4 of 5

Thursday, August 24, 2017 The morning gave us a pretty fog: Day 4 was long. My 12yos name is Jack, so he was determined to get us to camp on Jack Lake. But, my 9yo wouldn’t get out of bed without lots of prodding (lecturing, yelling, etc. this trip was not a vision of ideal parenting) and we didn’t set off until 10:30AM. Yes, the 140 rod to Sitka Lake was tough. It was up and down and we needed to 2 man the canoe over a boulder, but I wouldn’t let this portage deter anyone from this route. If a 38yo non-muscular, small frame girl and 2 kids can do it, so can you. We actually talk more negatively of the muddy portages than the hilly ones. I almost lost my shoe twice on other portages, and that would be from fabric ripping, not a loose shoe. We pulled in site 928 at 5:30PM with no water left for the day. The gravity filter we were using was barely dripping anymore so we chanced the lily pad water of Jack, used the backup pills we had and went to start dinner. We couldn’t get the stove to light. Fuel was not empty, but would not flow. Darn. I was never good at cooking over a fire, so I put the boys on the task as I tackled the bear rope, etc (ha! – even with good trees…). They shocked me with giving me a fully cooked chicken and rice in 45min. I was now ready to call this trip a complete success.


Day 5 of 5

Friday, August 25, 2017 The Jack Lake site was the only time we really had issues with mosquitoes and we all slept terribly due to the cold and aching muscles. We had not been able to dry anything out the night before and we woke up absolutely freezing. No amount of yelling was going to get the 9yo out of the tent and the 12yo was huddled wrapped in his sweatshirt and long underwear. I broke out the toe warmer heat pads that I had been saving for when we were at our worst. This was it. This at least got the 9yo out of the tent, but the stove still wasn’t working so we had to get a decent fire going for oatmeal and hot chocolate (and coffee!!). After getting a hot drink and food in his system, the 9yo picked up the map and realized we could reach the exit point today instead of camping another night. His great sales pitch began. His determination to move fast increased his missing muscle strength and enabled us to single portage to Kelly Lake. After entering the lake, we saw a mama moose and her babe crossing the water! I dropped my paddle trying to get the camera and failed to get any pictures, but this was a needed highlight at the moment that made the boys beam and again brought the possibility of 1 more night in the BWCA. When we got to Burnt Lake, where we were hoping to stay, we were with another group frantically looking for a site and coming up empty - a Friday night close to 2 entry points. We stopped at a nice shoreline for lunch and discussed our trip, our moods, and all the pros and cons to heading out. We pushed off all in agreement that while it had been a great trip that surpassed all our expectations, the gravity bag filter must be done, the fuel was not working, and none of us wanted to wake up that cold again. Being Minnesotans, it would always be easy for us to come back. We breezed thru the last 2 portages, turned in our canoe uneventfully and drove home to the other half of our family who were extremely excited to see us a day early. 


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