BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 27 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Sawbill Lake Loop -- The Real World?
August 01, 2018
Number of Days:
For this trip, it is a group of 8 guys entering at Sawbill Lake and completing the popular ‘Sawbill Lake Loop’ in a four-night trip. Most had been to the BWCA before, but the trip was new for two of the guys.
Wednesday, August 01, 2018
We left the Twin Cities around 7 am in hopes of getting to Sawbill Canoe Outfitters around 1 and putting in before 2. It was a pretty chilly day for it being August 1, but then again you never know what to expect in Minnesota. We stopped at Tobies in Hinckley (I obviously got a giant cinnamon roll) and continued on towards Duluth. We stopped in Tofte for lunch around 11:30 or so at Coho Cafe. It was definitely decent food, though it’s not like there were a lot of choices in Tofte.
After lunch we headed up the Sawbill Trail and arrived right on time. Did the paperwork on our canoe rentals, and we were soon launching off. It had been drizzly all morning and although the weather reports indicated it would taper off, the drizzle was still going strong when we launched around 2:00. Here we are launching our canoes at the very convenient dock.
The plan for today was to camp on Burnt (2 portages away) given the afternoon entry. In no time at all, we were at our first portage to Smoke.
I love watching first-timers do portages the first time. ‘So I just walk this trail until I see water again?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to have 2 people carry a canoe?’ Anyway, they loved it once they got to the other side. On this trip, we single portaged all portages since there were 8 able-bodied young men.
The Smoke side is definitely an adventure. Due to the boggy nature of it, there is a ‘floating’ dock from which to launch your canoe. However, put more than one person on it and it definitely starts to sink. Oh and don’t step off the dock! If you do, you’ll be up to your knee in muck—let’s just say we know from experience!
We really enjoyed the elevation in the distance while paddling Smoke.
The portage to Burnt was pretty uneventful. Being on Burnt, we now started to look for a campsite. We looked at the map and decided which we would prefer, if possible.
We made a beeline for the island site just south of the put-in point. Occupied. How about the southern point? Occupied. The two in the middle of the lake? Occupied. At this point I saw more canoes on the lake than I’ve ever seen in a BWCA lake. We counted 11 (!) canoes on the relatively small Burnt Lake. Needless to say, when we checked out the northern campsites, they were also taken. Okay, so we were skunked on Burnt. No big deal. We’d get the 210 portage out of the way and take one of the 4 sites just after the portage on Kelly.
I really enjoyed this portage. Definitely not difficult, but very pretty. Since I went first, I walked quietly and hoped to see some wildlife. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything.
Once we were all over to Kelly, everyone was happy that we had gotten it out of the way for tomorrow. So we started to check out the campsites on Kelly. We could not find the southern campsite in the bunch of four on Kelly, so we went into the bay to check the others. They seemed pretty low-lying and were quite hidden. We had to get right up next to the campsites before we were able to see that they were… occupied. Went up to the northern campsite in the clump of four: occupied. Finally located the southern campsite (seemed much further south than our maps indicated) and it was occupied. Okay, so now we were 0 for 10, it was still drizzling, and it was going to be dark soon. I don’t generally like to look at the time in the BW, but I looked so I knew how much time we had before dusk. It was 6:15, which isn’t great.
The group at the northern campsite was out canoeing, so we decided to approach them and ask if we could share their site, seeing that it was quite a paddle to the next three campsites, and with our luck those might be occupied as well! The gentleman responded with ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ Now, I get it. We’re a group of eight guys. I wouldn’t want to share my campsite with another group, let alone a group of eight guys. But at the time we were getting desperate (oh, and we had some steaks thawing that we REALLY wanted to grill). So his response became a joke for the rest of the trip: ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ He also told us the campsite at the far north side of Kelly was occupied. Just past that one, there were two campsites on Jack Lake that last he saw were unoccupied. We also had the option of paddling south to Peterson Lake as that campsite was much closer. However, being one away from an entry point lake, and it being the only campsite on that lake, we decided to wind our way up the Temperance towards Jack.
Sure enough, the campsite at the north end of Kelly was taken. 0-11. The portage to Jack was nothing. We decided that the Jack side of the portage could definitely be a makeshift campsite if the two sites on Jack were taken. I was bummed we were in such a rush and didn’t get a chance to explore the Jack Lake mine at the Jack side of this portage.
As we neared the bay with the two campsites in Jack, we saw… a canoe. They had the southern campsite. But, to everyone’s delight and relief, they informed us that the northern campsite, though small and swampy, was free! Good thing too, as it was getting quite late. The first 12 were taken but lucky 13 came through for us! They also informed us that the campsite on Weird Lake, just north a little ways, was also free, and by their account was a much better site. Somehow, we decided to get greedy and send a couple canoes to Weird to see if the site was still open.
Wow. What a bad decision. We definitely underestimated how far away it was. I was in the group that checked out the Weird site. By the time we got to the portage, I knew it would take too long to go back, get the others at Jack, come back to Weird and set up camp. So I made the executive decision to call the other canoe back who had found the Weird site unoccupied and go back to Jack. They were both very frustrated as they sang the praises of the Weird site, but there simply was not enough daylight. Should not have done that scouting mission!
Back at the Jack site, we got tents set up during dusk and it was pitch black by the time we had things set up. We tried to get a fire going, but everything was too wet and we were too tired! We made some instant mashed potatoes and called it a night.
~Sawbill Lake, Smoke Lake, Burnt Lake, Kelly Lake, Jack Lake
Thursday, August 02, 2018
We woke up to a beautiful morning.
I was soaking up the sun rays after it had rained all yesterday.
Unfortunately, the sun was fleeting as it gave way to more clouds. We packed up early and hit the water. We decided that since we went way farther than we had planned the first day, we could now probably do a layover night—something I’ve never done. We were thinking either South or North Temperance. Everyone was in a much better mood today. No rain. No threat of camping at a portage trail. There was even talk of grilling up the steaks for lunch if they didn’t seem to have spoiled yet. Here’s a group picture just after our longest portage of the trip – a 225-rodder.
It just dawned on us, we hadn’t met anyone on a portage trail yet. We could only assume everyone had stayed put yesterday. But as we traveled north, we didn’t encounter anyone until we got to the portage between North and South Temperance. We didn’t see anyone on South Temperance, and there was a beautiful unoccupied campsite on a tall rock formation that we passed. At the portage, we waited 10-15 minutes or so while the other group (travelling south) got all of their people and belongings launched. No worries, there was no rush today.
On North Temperance, we were delighted to find all three campsites unoccupied and decided to call that home for the next two nights. We initially decide on the seclusion of the northern most site on an island. (By the way, the map makes it look like the campsite is on the west side of the island, but it is actually on the east side.)
So we land and cook up our lunch that was supposed to be yesterday’s dinner, composed of steak and corn on the cob. Mmmmm… So good. And none of us got sick, so the vacuum-sealed steak must have been just fine. During lunch, I throw out that I would prefer a site with more of a view. Now, as the trip leader, I’m not about to leave a site everyone else likes just for my own personal preference. But, I wanted to see if anyone else agreed with me. Well, almost everyone else agreed they would like a view, so we headed back to the southernmost site. It had a great view, a nice rock peninsula for swimming/lying down, and some great hammock trees. It was a push to set up 4 tents, but we made it work.
The rest of the day was classic B-dubs: swimming, lying in the hammock, fishing, cooking, eating, talking around the campfire, and watching the sunset.
We tried pizza for dinner, but I don’t have any sort of reflector oven. As a result, it was not super successful, but everyone made their own creations of pizza crust, cheese, tomato sauce, and pepperoni and we made it work. I wouldn’t do this meal again without some better equipment (or better technique?).
~Jack Lake, Weird Lake, South Temperance Lake, North Temperance Lake
Friday, August 03, 2018
Wow, layover days are nice. It was amazing being able to wake up and know that we had nothing we had to do! After a hearty breakfast of French toast and shelf stable bacon, we parted ways and everyone did his own thing. Tim and I decided to check out a bluff in the southeastern bay. We paddled to shore and bushwhacked our way up the hill to see if we could get to a decent overlook. Here’s the vantage point we had.
Another day of swimming, fishing, cards, and hammocking made it a good rest day. I do like to explore, so I wouldn’t want to do more than one layover day, but it was a good change of pace. Kyle caught a particularly large creature while fishing from the point.
After about 20 minutes, we were finally able to break the turtle free from the hook, and the snapper swam away quickly!
Tonight the other two sites filled up. In the evening, we saw a couple canoes portage in and we could tell they had their packs in the canoes with them. We briefly discussed with each other and decided that we would absolutely let them stay at our site if they asked. (If we hadn’t had troubles of our own a couple nights earlier, we may not have come to that same conclusion.) However, they never ended up coming near our site.
Another beautiful sunset tonight.
The weather radio says possible storms in the area and that it could rain most of the day tomorrow. We decided we need to get up early tomorrow if we want to have any chance of making it through Cherokee and back to Sawbill to camp our last night.
Side note: Today is the day that $h!t was going down in the real world. It would be 48 more hours until I knew anything. I can't ignore that when I recap the day.
~North Temperance Lake
Saturday, August 04, 2018
We arose early and roused the rest of the group to get an early start. The goal was to camp on Sawbill tonight, if the weather allowed. It was cloudy when we woke up, but no rain yet. We portaged into Sitka and were surprised to see a group of nine at the other end of the portage so early in the morning. Then we remembered that when we were at the outfitters, they talked about a group of 54 they were outfitting that were entering the day after us. This was evidently one of the groups. The group informed us the Sitka-Cherokee portage was quite difficult. After some slight difficultly finding the portage, we were on our way. It was definitely up and down (this one goes over the Laurentian Divide), but going north as we were, you are definitely going downhill for more of it. There was one particular spot I remember where I had to jump down from a rock and veer my canoe at the last second to avoid hitting a tree directly in front of the rock.
The landing at the Cherokee side is definitely cramped, much to the chagrin of another group of nine who had just approached the portage from Cherokee. I suggested waiting for the rest of our group as were single portaging and would just be a couple minutes, but the group leader (the lone adult among some middle/high schoolers) seemed very impatient and was intent on starting the portage immediately. He started to portage a canoe up the very steep landing while our second canoe was coming down, and he had to retreat back to the water. He decided to just wait at this point, but let everyone know how frustrated he was. I’ll give him a pass since he was the lone adult in the group and probably had other things to be frustrated about as well.
Cherokee is beautiful. I feel that we missed out by not camping on Cherokee. We wondered if we could pass to the south of an island on the way to the Cherokee Creek, noting a small amount of blue on the map. It turns out that it is navigable, though does get fairly narrow! The Cherokee Creek is also beautiful.
I love the elevated walls during parts of it and the intimate nature of the more narrow part of the creek. I was nervous that the landing would be difficult to spot for the portage to Skoop, but it was extremely obvious. Still no rain!
The next 4/5 portages were full of boulders and muck, as I recall. It looked like one part (Ada Creek) must be navigable at times, but we had to take the longer portage around the entire thing. The landing at the north end of Ada also proved difficult. It was a huge mud pit and I believe unavoidable in order to get access to the water. But, we made it through just fine at the end of the day.
The last portage to Sawbill was very easy and we all celebrated upon completing our final portage. We decided we would take a campsite on the northern end of the lake so we could enjoy one final paddle Sunday morning. The first few campsites we passed were unoccupied, but we were hoping for a little more elevation.
We were all just paddling along when all of a sudden, one of the canoes tipped and all of its contents spilled into the water. We immediately made sure the two guys were okay, and they frantically grabbed for their packs and threw them back in the canoe. We ended up pulling their canoe to shore while they swam over so they could easily get back in. I guess one of the newbies shifted his weight very suddenly, then they both overreacted to the initial weight shift and in they went! Unbelievable! Because of that, we chose the next site we came to so they could dry off. And lucky us, it had elevation and a great view of the lake!
No sooner had we set up camp then did it start raining again. And it rained the entire rest of the day.
So people read in their tents, or sat in the rain soaking up the outdoors. One highlight of the day was when we all emerged from our tents (getting some tent fever) and we decided to have a pancake party! We passed the stove around as one by one we each made our own pancakes.
That was the highlight of the day for me and by far the best pancake I’ve ever had! Dinner was chili which was also delicious.
~North Temperance Lake, Sitka Lake, Cherokee Lake, Skoop Lake, Ada Lake, Sawbill Lake
Sunday, August 05, 2018
We awoke and as is true for every trip, we somberly packed up, sad to be leaving the BWs. And of course, it was turning out to be a nice, sunny day.
Good for our last paddle, but makes you want to stay all the longer. It was about an hour paddle back to the dock where we unloaded our things and carried the canoes back to the outfitter.
I went inside to settle up and got the message nobody ever wants to get: ‘Call your wife ASAP.’ Well this is the first time anyone in our group has had cell phone service. I call my wife and she drops the bomb that her brother had died (unexpectedly, he was 27) two days earlier. My heart sank and I couldn’t stop the tears from filling my eyes. All at once a million thoughts flooded my brain. I couldn’t reconcile that I had just been spending the past couple days enjoying my time in the wilderness while my wife and her entire family were reeling. The fact that I couldn’t be there for my wife was making me sick to my stomach. By the time I met up with the other guys, they already knew. Of course, everyone had been trying to contact all of us for the past two days, so everyone had messages on their phones.
The ride home was very quiet, as I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. Is the BWCA the real world? It didn’t seem like it at all. It seemed like some playground I was in, isolated from the pain of the real world. A few months later, it is still difficult to talk about the good parts of this trip, given that I know what was going on back home at the same time. This is one of the risks you take going into the BWCA with no satellite communication device. Who knows, maybe my future trips will be including one of those.