BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 23 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Little Sag East Loop from Sawbill
May 21, 2017
Number of Days:
"I don't think the heavy stuff's gonna come down for quite a while"
After spending a cold, rainy Saturday night in a motel room instead of the Sawbill campground so we wouldn't start the trip with wet gear, we're loading the canoe in the rain at the Sawbill landing. Cold & rainy was going to be the theme for the first half of the trip. We did see our first wildlife of the trip shortly after turning onto the Sawbill trail. Other than ticks, this would be our only meaningful encounter with critters.
Off we go on our way to the evening's campsite on the far north end of Cherokee. It's a steady rain and temp is in the high 30s/low 40's. Thank goodness for good rain gear. We lost a little time when we didn't bear northeast to the Ada Creek portage, but we had all kinds of time. This is the second time I've gone up that way and both times, I've wondered how long it's been since the creek was navigable. We saw a guy trying to line his canoe down it and it didn't look like he was having fun or saving any time. The rest of the short paddles and longish portages happened without incident. Unlike the fall trip down Cherokee creek, there was plenty of water this time to just paddle right over the beaver dam. I wouldn't begin this trip with mud up to my thigh after slipping off the dam.
We decide to look for a campsite as close to the portage into Gordon as possible. We ended up at 895 at the north end right before the portage. It was raining and after we got camp set up, we had a quick dinner and then retired for the night to read and sleep. The campsite is OK. Rated 3 stars by users here and that was probably because it was dry. The landing faces east and was slick as snot from the rain. Would probably have a gorgeous of sunrises.
~Sawbill Lake, Ada Lake, Skoop Lake, Cherokee Lake
"How much duct tape do you have with you?"
Woke up to rain. Had breakfast and broke camp a little later than we'd hoped. The goal today was Tuscarora.
A little side note is in order here. We decided to do this loop based on the route guide that Sawbill Outfitters has published. It's marked as a 6 day trip with a layover day on Little Sag that lets you explore and fish. Sounded great. Little did we know that the 6 day trip was calibrated for 20 year old triathletes who single portage in ideal weather.
Quick paddle up to the 5 rod portage into Gordon. Boom, whiz, bang and we're paddling through Gordon in the steady rain. 28 rods into the Long island river. Portage path is slick, like every other one. We load the canoe and because of the way we've positioned it to take advantage of some rocks to stand on, I get into the bow first. Everything starts moving really fast at this point and get's kind of fuzzy. My right arm was still dry as I climbed out onto the bank and started pulling packs out of the water before bailing out the canoe. We took some time to drain our boots, wring out our clothes and generally get our wits about us. It's mid 40's out and still drizzling rain.
We get back in the canoe and paddle on to the end of Long Island River and the 5 rod portage into Long Island Lake. I was worried about being cold, but the slow burn I had from dumping the canoe kept me warm. So warm in fact, that without thinking, I jumped out of the canoe and gave it a tug to beach it. Scraaaaaaape...Poke. Awesome, I've just put a long gouge and a baseball sized hole in the boat...below the water line. Tough way to learn a lesson that I already knew. Don't lose your cool, take things in stride and keep a level head.
So here we are, a day and a half into the trip with 5 more days to go, 13 hours away from the outfitter, with a nice hole below our water line. At this point, I cooled off very quickly and actually started having lucid thoughts. I carry between 2 and 5 yards of good ole duct tape. My partner does the same. We unloaded the boat and rolled it onto it's side. I unzipped my rain jacket and leaned over the boat while my partner dried it around the "wound site" inside and out. We taped it up, keeping track of how much we used. Satisfied that we'd patched it up, we figured out how much tape was left and how many more times we could fix it. We figured we had enough tape to do the same repair 2 more times with a little left over. We wouldn't turn back, we'd keep going. The good news out of all this was that it was still raining, so we had consistency on our side.
We paddled and portage with a purpose now. We knew there was no way we'd make Tuscarora. Looking back, there's no way we would have made it without the 2 mishaps. See the side note above. Finally made Cross Bay Lake and debated about trying to push onto Snipe. Decided to take the first campsite that was open, since Cross Bay is an entry point. We ended up staying at the first campsite we came to, the southernmost site on Cross Bay (559?). We had a break in the rain and the sun came out. We took the opportunity to set a clothesline and start drying some things out. Unbeknownst to me, the little spill we had taken earlier had gotten my partner's down jacket and sleeping bag wet. The jacket wouldn't dry out the rest of the trip. The bag wasn't as bad and was usable after an hour or so in the sun and the stiff breeze that came up and lasted for most of the night.
Some photos from our site on Cross Bay.
~Cherokee Lake, Gordon Lake, Long Island Lake, Rib Lake, Karl Lake, Lower George Lake, Long Island Lake
"No whammies, no whammies, no whammies"
No rain this morning, but another night that dipped into the 30s. We took our time breaking camp and had breakfast before pushing off around 8:30. At this point, we're way off our itinerary and we decided to just kind of go like hell and see what happened. We had an extra day built into the schedule, so no need to panic. We were wondering if we could push and get back on schedule to make up for yesterday. We were so optimistic first thing in the morning.
Yesterday in our mad rush to make up time, I'd thought rib was Cross Bay and was wondering out loud where the portage into Snipe was. "The portage should be on the west side at the end of a finger running WSW". As a result of my momentary confusion, I was now the brunt of my partners good natured joking and prodding about my navigation skills. Tripping with him was great. We work together, share the same twisted sense of humor and enjoy hanging out. This trip was just more of the same, away from cell phones, email and deadlines.
Into the cut off of Cross Bay to the Snipe portage and we ran into a beaver dam to get over. Snipe saw us get a little rain. Then it was 100 rods into Copper Lake, but there was a short paddle mid portage. On to Hubbub Lake and Howl Swamp Portage. Any thoughts we had of getting back on schedule were quickly dashed. Lots of fresh blow downs on the portage meant that we had to break out the saw for the first time. We came upon Tuscarora late in the afternoon. This was supposed to be our destination for the previous evening's camp. We just kind of laughed and decided that we were doing all right for our age, my momentary lapse in map reading skills, his ability to flip a canoe and my knack for poking holes in kevlar.
Tuscarora was beautiful. A golden sand beach to launch from was nice. We had a little bit of sun that made a short appearance as we ate some snacks. The wind from the north was beginning to pick up and we'd have some nice broadside waves for the paddle across to the portage into Owl. We met people for the first time since Day 1 on that portage. A pleasant British couple who chatted with us for a moment and then we went our separate ways. I believe they were on their way to Missing Link.
Before pushing off into Owl, we looked at the map and decided we'd want to take a good site on Crooked if there was one. If not, we'd head to Mora. Little Sag was out of reach today. We'd had long days so far, never getting into camp before 6. We'd had visions of setting up camp every day between 3 & 4, roaring fires, cocktails and starry nights. So far, it had been the opposite experience.
We hit Crooked and started checking out campsites. Crooked falls on the edge of a burn. 5 sites are marked on the map and we think only 2 aren't burnt out. We ended up staying at the site on the south end of the large island (514). Not a great site, but it was high up off the water and had lots of room with a nice view to the south southeast.
"To Little Sag or Not to Little Sag? That is the question."
The answer was not to Little Sag and I think we both regret it.
The previous evening had been dry and a little warmer. The weather was shifting into something more favorable, but we were a day and a half behind our original plan and concerned that we had no more room for error in what had been an over reaching trip plan. I decided that I would call this trip "A Lake Too Far" in homage to the book "A Bridge Too Far". Just like the Allies did with Operation Market Garden, we'd bitten off just a little more than we could chew. But the victors write history, so we both decided that within 48 hours of arriving back home we'd look back fondly at a successful trip. Up to now, it was taking on the tenor of a death march and we didn't want it to go that way.
Up and at 'em we, portaged into Terry and on into Mora. We debated Little Sag one more time. The weather was now high 50s, climbing into the 60s with sun. It was a beautiful day, but the last 3 days of cold rain (4 counting the drive up) kept us from heading west into Little Sag. We decided we'd do a short day and spend the night on Hub. We'd do a fire for the first time all trip and break out the cocktails while the sun was still up. We were due for a relaxing day.
On Whipped, we stopped at the lone campsite for lunch. It was a beautiful day with scattered clouds and little breeze. The lake was nearly like glass. As my grandfather used to say, "It feels so nice out, I think I'll leave it out." We sat near the fire ring and just shot the bull while we ate way too much for a lunch. It was nice to not have all the rain gear on while water ran off the brim of your hat.
We hit Hub after a thigh burning 300 rod portage, ready to call it a day and enjoy ourselves. Only one problem. We couldn't find a camp site without widow makers above each site. Not entirely true, I guess. One of the 3 sites had extensive wind damage and there wasn't a tree standing that was large enough to hang a hammock. All the blow downs had been felled, so a tent would have worked, just not my hammock. We decided to move onto Mesaba. The 105 rods into Mesaba was flat with a few blowdowns, but they didn't need to be cut. We could just step over them. It was probably in the low 60s now and the sun was shining. After the second and final trip across the portage, I looked down and saw 4 ticks crawling across my pants. Permethrin would do them in shortly, but I hadn't treated my brown fleece jacket that I had tied around my waist. I pulled it off and proceeded to pick 11 ticks off of it. The only way I saw a lot of them was catching the shine off of them in the sun. This was the first time I'd had ticks on me the entire trip.
Mesaba is a beautiful lake and we got the south facing site (858). This isn't much of a site. Only one real tent pad, which was fine because I had a great hanging spot. The wind started to die down as the sun got lower and the bugs were out in force. Nothing biting, but lots of little black fly looking things. The ticks at this site were horrible. After dinner, we both retreated to our shelters to escape the bugs and ticks. Happy again for permethrin.
If you look closely, you can see the repair we did to the canoe.
~Crooked Lake, Tarry Lake, Mora Lake, Whipped Lake, Fente Lake, Mesaba Lake
"Let's try to make Duluth tonight"
We'd originally planned on 6 days, but thought we'd missed that option by being so far behind. Now were suddenly realizing we were ahead. The thought of a layover day on tick central wasn't appealing. We thought Alton and Sawbill would be crowded on a Holiday weekend and we were in no hurry to camp around people making noise. We decided if we were going to be around people, might as well do it where there's good beer and food. We'd come out a day early and try to make Duluth that night before the last 11 hours of the drive the next day.
Quick breakfast of a bar, some cashews and coffee. Then we pulled ticks off of gear and clothing before pushing off. The weather was alternating between clouds and sunshine, but it was in the low 60s by noon. The trip across the dreaded 480 rod portage was a drag, but we enjoyed the long paddle down Kelso into Sawbill and to the landing. I settled up with Sawbill on the damaged boat, enjoyed a shower and then we hit the road. Beers and a Jucy Lucy at Canal Park Brewery with a visit to the Duluth pack store the next morning rounded it out.