BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 16 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Lady Chain, Beaver/Smite/Boulder/Ledge/Makwa loop, Louse River, Frost River
August 13, 2020
Number of Days:
****************************** The Day before: We arrived at Sawbill after flying to MSP from our home in Durham, NC and renting a car for the drive. Once there we asked to speak with a guide about possible routes. Of course, we had been researching the area, and already had Voyageur and McKenzie maps. Paul -- the ‘legend’ as he was introduced by another employee at Sawbill Outfitters -- was a very experienced paddler, having done several multi-week solo trips in the area. He spent maybe an hour answering all of our questions, and most importantly, was encouraging about doing the Louse and Frost rivers.
They allow night-before pickup, so we got our canoe after 7pm (from friendly, easygoing Johnny, who answered more of our questions) and moved it down to the water, then spent the night in the campground. We still didn’t know which way we would go in the morning. **********************
Seeing the possibility of a little rain on Friday/Saturday, we decided to go up the Lady Chain, which would leave many options open for those days. We were a little bit apprehensive about all of the portages in this area, knowing that we would be spending a much higher amount of our time portaging than paddling, compared to our other trips.
We didn’t get a chance to weigh our backpacks just before leaving, but estimate they were about 45lbs and 35lbs for mine and Libby’s. Given that we like to do single portages, we wondered what it would feel like, especially at the start when we had all of our food. I carry the pack and canoe, while Libby looks like a vagabond with her pack and all the other gear -- life vests held by paddles, large lure box and gooey fish gloves held in the landing net, map bags and my huge, ridiculous hat dangling from a carabiner on the back of her pack. Not to mention the fishing rod, which would regularly get snagged on branches during the portage (late in the trip -- after I carried the rod and realized what a pain it was -- we realized how easy it was to tie the rod into the canoe).
The first few portages were relatively easy -- flat and smooth -- and our packs felt good. In fact mine felt infinitely better than in previous years, when I carried the blue pack Libby had this year. This pack has a very high profile, and it was incredibly uncomfortable to try to cram the top of it into the canoe between the yoke and my neck. The pack I used this year -- unbelievably, the same one Libby carried last year -- held the canoe beautifully on my shoulders. We like these conventional internal-frame backpacking packs better than the Duluth packs more often used. They are more comfortable and put more of the weight on our hips.
The Phoebe River gave us a nice preview of the kind of beauty we would encounter on the river sections of this trip, as it wound through narrow paths of lily pads and wildflowers. Libby spotted patches of carnivorous plants (pitcher plants and sundews) in full bloom in the floating bogs, their bases filled with trapped insects, from which the plants extract nitrogen.
A surprisingly large bass went for a Whopper Plopper (bone, or yellow color) as we trolled up the Phoebe River into Knight Lake. I decided to try the Zulu rig I had learned about from Quetico Mike on this forum, and no sooner had I cast it out than another nice bass was hooked. Dinner was already covered by the first fish, so the second was released. Of note was the loss of a Heddon Lucky 13 lure I had purchased at Mike’s suggestion -- hit a snag in some shallow water, broke the line, and though we went back to look, couldn’t find it. Was looking forward to seeing how it would do. Fortunately, there were plenty of lures left in the tackle box.
We decided to stop for the night at the east campsite on Hazel, and had the lake to ourselves. The evening’s entertainment was ably provided by a very large snapping turtle. As I was cleaning the bass, I said to Libby “I think we have company”, noticing the tip of its nose peeking out of the water as it sniffed its way toward the fish, knife, and cutting board. We put the fish parts on a rock just in the water, and this friendly creature scootched up to grab, rip and swallow them until they were no more. We enjoyed this real-life documentary for close to an hour.
We awoke to the sound of powerful thunderstorms in the distance, but got only a light rain at our site, and the sky was clear by the time we got up at 7.
For the day: 8 portages, about 731 rods, 8.7 miles of paddling
Just after we got set up two young men approached in a canoe yelling “students doing a documentary!” and asked if they could pull up. We said sure and they proceeded to pull out their camera equipment (50+ pounds worth) and film us doing “normal campsite activities” (which of course are not possible when you know you’re being filmed). Kyle and Jack, college students from Missouri and the Twin Cities, , were entering a documentary contest and asked us questions about our experiences, esp. related to the environment. Kyle (or was it Jack?) filmed me casting off the rocks -- this footage would surely win votes in a fishing comedy contest.
Once they paddled off, we went out trolling for a little fish for dinner. We were almost back to camp when a nice bass hit another Whopper Plopper (monkey butt color, with rattles -- our son found this one on a previous trip to the BW and it is by far my favorite trolling lure in shallower water). Dinner time.
At this site, a different creature was eagerly awaiting fish snacks. As I cleaned the fish out on a point, a very extroverted seagull swam right over. I threw a small piece of meat on a nearby rock, and it wasted no time hopping over to swallow it. The other parts of the fish were dispensed in impressively large gulps.
With 7 more nights, we are still considering all possible options from here.
For the day: 7 portages, 507 rods, 6.1 miles of paddling
After jumping, swimming, cooking and eating, we headed toward Boulder. Wondering about the western route up through Smite -- which we had forgotten to ask the outfitters about -- we were called to explore it. Libby’s Voyageur map didn’t even show a portage into Smite from Beaver, but our other McKenzie maps did. And we soon found out why. The portage was by far the most primitive we had experienced -- completely possible, just tight with some difficult footing in spots.
Smite was pretty, and felt very secluded. We didn’t find the portage into Adams -- just paddled down the channel and lifted over some rocks and we were there. On the way we spotted a group of 5 ducks -- maybe Golden Eye, and a red-breasted Merganser.
We didn’t find the first portage on the way from Adams to Boulder -- went through the marshy area, following the stream flow, where we lifted over our *first* beaver dam of the trip. Then another. Libby noticed areas of sedge/grasses that looked mowed. Beaver? But after seeing a huge, fresh moose track at the second portage, we wondered if the mowing was the work of a moose.
Although it was getting late, our concerns about finding an open site on Adams were unfounded, as we paddled out to the empty island site and had the entire lake to ourselves. The site was beautiful, and previous campers had laid out a textbook array of materials to create a fire, from split kindling to cut logs. We didn’t have a fire but were happy to leave it all for the next group. Even the sitting logs around the fire ring were perfectly notched.
Watching the sun go down I threw out the yellow Whopper Plooper and BAM, bass for dinner on the first cast. It was a lovely evening for swimming, eating and watching the sunset.
For the day: 7 portages, about 300 rods, about 7.9 miles paddling
The first portage was long, but not difficult. We expected the water crossing on the first section. I missed the turn to the right but fortunately Lib was not far behind and got me going the right way. The landing at Ledge was very strange. A nice log structure had been laid a few feet out in the water. I thought “I will step out to this nice log structure and lay down the canoe”. I made the first step in front of the structure with my right foot and sunk to my waist into a very slushy bog. The other leg did what it could, twisting fortunately in a way that didn’t really hurt it. I guess I laid the canoe down from there. Lib noted a giant leech (yay!) and a huge dragonfly larvae (they grow ‘em big up here to handle the mosquito monsters).
We worked our way through small and lovely Vee and Fee, feeling like we had the whole place to ourselves (we did). We stopped on a rock on Hoe for snacks, and most certainly a swim although I don’t really remember. We talked about the rest of our trip and realized with the nights we had left, it was still possible to do both the Louse and Frost Rivers, while still giving ourselves an out if the Louse proved too difficult or unpleasant. So, we pushed on to Makwa.
Paddling across Makwa it was not hard to find the cliff-jumping site we had heard about. This impressive striped cliff is just to the east of the western campsite. We took the little trail up to the lowest jumping spot on the cliff, where there is a triangular rock that juts out -- like it was put there for jumping. It was just about the right speed for us, and we had no need to go higher. Fun.
We got quite good at portaging today, and by the time we got to Malberg (site 1057, in the northeast arm of Malberg) were starting to feel the burn from 12 portages totalling 980 rods -- about 3 miles. Fortunately, we were able to single portage everything, which allowed us to efficiently cover that kind of distance.
Fishing was light today -- a couple of hits but nothing sizable hooked -- so I fished in some shallow water off a point to the north of the campsite while Lib made dinner. I got a couple hits on a whopper plopper and then decided to tempt the fish with a Mepps spinner. One cast and it was hooked. Being the newbie that I am, I reeled it up near shore and tried to net it in the shallow water, where it broke the line (likely with its teeth as I had lost my nice, pricey titanium leader on day one) and disappeared. Lesson learned: pull the fish onto land and jump on it next time.
The site was notable for its long and lovely walk to the privy, which was atop a hill and surrounded by birch trees, most of which had had their tops blown off.
We had a nice evening, watching the very pink sunset. In the morning I paddled solo through the narrow channel to the southwest of our site, trolling a taildancer. Hooked a small pike and released it.
For the day: 12 portages, 980 rods, 7 miles paddling
We trolled down Malberg to the Louse River outlet. Paddled up the long finger of Frond, including lifting over a nice beaver dam near the bottom. Libby noted flora galore: lilies, joe-pye weed relative, goldenrod, purple aster, something like St. John’s wort, evening primrose, and a white flower like mountain mint or boneset. The end of the last portage into Trail was especially stunning.
We noticed fresh moose poop on one portage, still hoping to spot one.
I threw out the Zulu rig as we came into the larger western end of Frond Lake, and soon hit a snag, which broke the line. Oh no, I only brought one! We paddled back, turned around and had just about given up when we spotted the lure floating in the water and retrieved it. Telltale curly line made me think my knot had been shoddy, but I lucked out this time. From now on, I will ALWAYS check knots. If I remember.
I then put on a topwater pop-r type lure, and soon had a nice pike (I know I should be cool and say Northern but just am not there yet) hooked. Libby did her “take it to shore” routine and paddled the canoe to the nearest point, across the lake, from the front of the boat. She is VERY good at this! Once there I hopped out and pulled the fish onto land and jumped on it, having learned my lesson the previous day. Landing this way was especially important as the fish had the lure well into its mouth and I could see the open mouth and teeth precariously close to the line as Libby pulled us, keeping tension on the line.
We stopped at the campsite coming into Boze Lake -- beautiful -- to have lunch and eat the fish. Without any supplemental fish the previous day I was getting a bit hungry, and this also avoided carrying the fish through the upcoming portages. We had just finished cooking the fish and settling in to lunch when we heard canoes on the nearby portage. Given that there were only two sites on Trail, and that we needed one of them, we wolfed down our food and hopped in the canoe. By the time we got to the portage out of Boze, they weren’t in the water yet so we knew we were going to be OK since we were single portaging.
Libby noted that the lower Louse was “beautiful and remote … narrow, beaver-filled, flower-filled, scat of otter, mink, muskrat”. We saw a dead muskrat skin (well, it sure seemed like it was dead) turned inside out and scraped clean except for the skin and tail. It was near an obvious otter hangout, but would an otter do that?
We arrived at Trail relatively early -- around 3:30. The site near the portage looked nice with an unusually high view, so we walked up and used the binocs to check out the northern site. We weren’t feeling particularly energetic and our site seemed better anyway so we set up camp. After setting up we explored the northern part of the lake and a pike hit the Whopper Plopper just as we were finishing a clockwise loop around the northern island. I was just starting to reel in, thinking I was going to get caught on some lily pads. Libby did the ‘head for land’ routine, paddling us to the other campsite where I jumped out and grabbed the nice sized fish.
I discovered a sweet jumping rock just across the little cove from our campsite and had a nice swim. Libby watched a beaver swim all the way across the lake with a peeled log, and was entertained by two birds right behind her cooking spot, finding worms on the birch tree, as well as a cute little mouse (who of course would cease to be cute once in a bear bag).
By the way, we carried two Ursacks -- kevlar “bear-proof” bags, that allowed us to skip the whole bag-hanging routine. Each night we would tie them securely to a tree a fair distance from camp. They not only protected against bears, but probably more importantly proved to be squirrel, chipmunk, and even mouse proof.
To cap off this great day, we had our first campfire, which provided a nice escape from the swarms of mosquitoes that were having us for dinner as we were eating ours down on a rock by the water.
The site was truly beautiful, with a memorable, winding path through birches and evergreens to the privy.
For the day: 9 portages, 334 rods, 5.1 miles paddling
The morning was extended with another swim to the jumping rock across the cove, and a morning paddle around the mist-enshrouded lake. As we were eating breakfast on the rock on the lake below the campsite, we spotted a little brown blob that at first we thought was a beaver but then realized was a baby loon. Soon two parents broke the surface near the baby, one with a small fish that it deftly transferred. They were probably only about 100’ away on the lake, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching the parents feed the young one several fish. Each time a parent would emerge with a fish, the baby would zoom over to it, grab the fish, and parent/young would have a sweet physical connection sometimes along with an audible loonish peep.
We thought we might explore Tool Lake -- it looked possible on the map -- but at the inlet were blocked by rocks. We returned to a spot we had seen back to the south that looked like a clear portage (not really consulting the map as it didn’t seem necessary). We loaded up for the portage and went trundling down the trail. After stepping over a log or two (why didn’t someone cut these?), we came to a T intersection, CLEARLY marked with multiple X-oriented sticks in both directions. Huh? Someone REALLY meant for us not to go this way. But why? We investigated just a bit before deciding to go back to where the map indicated the portage should be. We didn’t see a portage on the left bank -- no big deal as the maps were sometimes wrong -- but did see a previously-used landing on the right of the stream outflow. We unloaded again and went up the “trail”, with Lib in the lead. It got more and more difficult, and I made a wrong turn with the canoe “hey Lib, am I supposed to be crossing a stream?” and she answered from somewhere in the woods “No!” But it was so thick I couldn’t back up until she came back to help. I then set down the canoe and we for some reason decided we just HAD to see where that “trail” went. We probably went about 60-80 rods, over and under trees, including under one big pine that someone had been nice enough to trim the branches on. Except, rather than cutting the small downward-pointing branches at the trunk, they left the branches sticking out so that we had to crawl under the tree. The same cuts would have been just as easy to make higher. I do appreciate that someone made these cuts, but I will never comprehend why they didn’t make them at the trunk!!!! After awhile we had a sinking feeling where we were headed … but we just had to find out … yes, back to the XXX place. Even once there I HAD to see where the trail continued so we followed that until it petered out into a swamp -- with nice fresh boot marks to follow right into the muck. So we turned back, recovered the canoe, lifted it back over the fallen logs, and got back to the landing, where we put several X sticks in an attempt to prevent others from making our mistake.
Once back in the water, we looked 20’ away to the other shore where there was a fallen tree that deftly guarded the actual portage, which only became clear once we were on top of it. Whew. I soon exclaimed “That was an HOUR of our lives totally WASTED!!!” which gave us a good chuckle as we know of course that there is no wasting of time in life, it is ALL life. But we don’t need to go farther on that.
The portage into Bug Lake had large canine tracks, without human tracks, so we surmised they may have been wolf. The entrance to the next Louse River section was an ambiguous floating bog but we bore to the right, and came to a beaver dam just as it was starting to drizzle.
The 125 rod portage into Louse Lake had a ‘reputation’ -- as did the next one. The first had a lot of rocks -- a whole lot -- that made footing tricky but with slow going were really not a problem. Partway through we hit a flooded section which forced us to get back in the canoe for about 10 strokes to meet the trail on the other side. The portage into Poe was maybe even rockier, but better cleared. Easy does it, not bad. We saw fresh moose tracks on this portage.
A pair of beavers slapped at us in Poe. We saw moose and wolf poop on the portage to Wine on the flat rocks toward the end. We checked out the island site on the western section of Wine but weren’t especially inspired (even though someone had left some very large moose antlers), so decided to canoe around to the eastern site near the next portage.
As we were setting up camp, thunder rumbled and it started to drizzle. Lib was engrossed in messing with our iphone 4S that we use to take pictures -- dang, out of memory! We both wracked our brains trying to remember how to get old pictures off the camera. While she did that I was hurriedly setting up the tent when the sun came out through the drizzle. “I wonder if there’s a rainbow somewhere” and we looked up and oh my gosh it was about the most brilliant double-rainbow we had ever seen. And complemented by a gorgeous sunset in the sky to the west. Still trying to get some memory on the camera to take pictures without missing the rainbow moment itself. Finally Lib conquered the beast and got a couple of shots.
We talked about next steps: still had enough nights to do the Frost. But what about the weather? Before we left the long range forecast was calling for rain the next couple of days. We brought this satellite phone for an emergency. Should we use it to call Sawbill for a weather forecast? In the end we felt it was justified, called, talked with Claire, and got a forecast for good weather the last couple of days, which sealed our plan: Onward to Frost!
For the day: 8 portages, 673 rods (counting getting lost), 5.6 miles paddling
It was a bit hard to find the portage to Frederick, as beavers had dammed the entrance. Libby noted that the outflow of this portage into Zenith was beautiful -- a huge swath of floating bog filled with pitcher plant flowers, sundews at edges, with sphagnum moss holding it all. It was sometimes tricky to follow the channel.
The portages to Duck, Hug and Mesaba were nicely built and maintained. We stopped for lunch at the northern campsite on Mesaba, which was on a nice hill with a good view. Libby snacked and caught up on trip notes while I tried to catch a fish for lunch but I declared the lake “fish free” as I threw out everything I had, including a Mepps spinner, with no bites. A couple of canoes went by while we ate and we told them that we weren’t staying the night. They checked out the other sites and came back just as we were leaving.
We ran into another group on the portage from Hub to Fente -- feeling busy all of a sudden, as we had hardly seen anyone since leaving Malberg the second time three days earlier. One of these guys mentioned a solo traveller who had just done the Frost, and that he said he had to lift over 20! beaver dams. And that he had bare feet. That gave us a little pause but we were committed now. We saw the solo canoeist from a distance but could tell that he was singing exuberantly, obviously off in his own glorious world. The 300 rod portage to Fente was smooth, so no problem. We had to lift over a few rocks in Fente. Fished in some nice pools between portages -- got a hit or two but no hooks. Really beautiful spots.
The portage from Fente to Afton, although only 20 rods, was probably the most difficult of the trip. Libby yelled back “double portage!” and after seeing how steep (and short) it was, I took her advice. Good choice, as part way up the “cliff” with only the canoe I came between a tree on the right and a steeply sloping rock on the left, and paused to decide what to do. I reached out with my right hand to get a pull from the tree, and momentarily forgot about gravity, which pulled the canoe off my shoulders and left me standing in the front of the canoe, still stuck in the same spot. Hmmm… this is interesting. I managed to wiggle my way forward with the canoe, and into a place where I could lay down the canoe and re-start. Going down was steep as well, but with no obstructions like the other side.
We set up at the only site on Afton -- nice and high with a commanding view of this sweet, small lake. An hour or so after we arrived, we heard whoops of joy coming from the Frost River outlet -- obviously travellers were finishing up and very excited about it. I knew they would be hoping for our site after a long day, and we briefly talked about whether we should invite them to stay with us. As they came by, they didn’t seem interested in talking much as they realized they needed to canoe on to the next site, and so we let them go. Another canoe from the same party -- all young men -- soon emerged and one said “we were gunning for your site!” They too zoomed up the lake to the portage. But not before telling us “the water level is really low -- we had to do a LOT of wading”. Hey, we know how to wade!
Before dinner, we explored the lake, trolling and looking at a nice beaver lodge. No fish were biting after a few trips around the lake, so we paddled over to the rocks on the southeast bank, across from the campsite, and I started casting toward them while Lib guided the canoe. Nothing doing, until I put on the Mepps and bang, we had a nice pike for dinner. Motto: “If they aren’t biting on a Mepps, there aren’t any fish.”
Libby noted that “the delight of the site was an adorable and constantly active red squirrel (she named it Afton) -- either eating or gathering pine cones the whole time, seemingly without regard to our presence.”
When I hung our swimming towel on a branch of “his” pine tree and came back later, it was on the ground, although there was no wind. The same thing happened overnight. He obviously did not like us using his tree for a laundry line.
For the day: 8 portages, 639 rods, 5 miles paddling
We started off fairly early -- for us -- maybe around 8am. Lifted over our first beaver dam within 100 yards of leaving Afton. Knowing we had many to go made it easy to have a relaxed attitude about them. We set out determined to count them all, which was funny because after a while we had to make up silly ways to remember what number we were on. In the end, we counted (about) 18 beaver dams that had to be lifted over, and 3 that we could push through without leaving the canoe. So our singing, barefooted friend was about right.
The trip itself was remarkably beautiful, and we were so happy that we had chosen to take it despite some doomful warnings. It was remote and quiet and secluded -- we saw not a person the whole way. Yes, we waded a decent amount but that was a pleasant change in itself.
We were hoping for a moose, but that would have to wait for another time … (I learned foreshadowing in grade school).
Once past Chase Lake, the river widened, and beaver dams became much less frequent. None of the portages were difficult in terrain, or hard to find.
We did feel just a bit triumphant when we arrived at Frost Lake around 3:30, early for us to arrive at our destination. We briefly checked out the first campsite, just north of the portage entrance into Frost. It was just OK. We were both ready for a swim so decided to head for the “beach” site to the north. It was truly beachy, with smooth sand and a very shallow entry into the lake. It was so shallow, for so far out, that it was hard to take a real swim.
Rejuvenated by the water, we packed up and decided to troll for dinner on the way to check out the site nearest the portage (881), as the site to the west of that one was occupied. I threw on a scatterrap tail dancer and off we went across the lake, hoping for a lake trout after reading the Sawbill Outfitters description of Frost Lake as a good place to find them. Around the middle of the lake, in deep water -- 50-70’ -- the line went tight and we had a fish. Libby pulled us to the nearest point on the lake, and on the way the fish surfaced and I saw it was a nice lake trout. Once to shore I landed it on the bank. Hooray!
Once we settled in at site 881, Lib offered to paddle out so I could fish some more. I put on a deep tail dancer as we headed toward the northern site. It wasn’t long before we had another hit, and we landed this much larger trout on another bank.
Knowing we had too much for dinner, but that it was too late to release the smaller fish, we paddled over to the folks at the site next to ours. Mark and (we think) Beth were a friendly young couple, who were mountain bike guides in Moab, UT. They graciously -- with just a touch of hesitation -- accepted the fish. It seemed that they didn’t have a lot of experience cleaning fish -- Beth said she had watched her brother clean a bunch -- so I tried to give them a quick “lesson”, knowing full well I was no expert, especially at lake trout. We said bye and trundled off to our site. On the way I realized -- and Lib agreed -- that Mark and I had been very cavalier about approaching each other. It seems that for both of us Covid 19 was not on the top of our minds.
This site was sweet! HUGE trees:pine and cypress. There was a well beaten trail to a large rock -- just about halfway between our site and Mark/Beth’s -- where we decided to cook and eat dinner. The trail evidently continued on toward their site. We found this a little unusual, as extensive trails had not been the rule at other sites on our trip.
I cleaned the trout on a rock a little to the east of our dinner rock, which was very hard to access due to a downed pine tree with many many branches. The flesh was a gorgeous pink -- almost like salmon. I tried to filet it like a bass, and got plenty of meat. But seeing all that was left on the ribs, I cut those into 2 chunks and kept those too.
We had a lovely dinner, bathed by the sunset on our rock. The first round of fish was delicious, with almost no bones. We then cooked the bony chunks, and the flesh separated from the bones easily for another meal’s worth of fish. By the end of dinner we were both quite full.
In the middle of the night -- I checked my watch and it was 3am -- I was awakened by loud sounds very nearby. I can only say it sounded like some large person was pounding a baseball bat on the ground. I woke up Libby “there’s something in our campsite.” One of my first thoughts was that it was a bear, ripping away at our bear bags. But no, it was pounding, not ripping. We both sat up in the tent, and my mouth went instantly dry. Do you think we should look at it? NO, said Lib. Oh lord, this is scary! More pounding, branches breaking, this thing is BIG!!! Then we heard a moaning sound, hard to describe. What the heck? More clumsy clomping. Eventually the noises moved up the trail toward where we had eaten dinner.
We eventually decided it must have been a moose. Or two. We both agreed we’d NEVER get back to sleep. But something magical happens in a tent in the wilderness and we both slipped back into slumber.
In the morning we found huge moose prints in the dirt near the fire ring. We felt very fortunate not to have pitched our tent in the pad next to it, but rather up the hill about 50 feet away.
For the day: 14 portages, 364 rods, 6.5 miles paddling, 18 beaver dams, 2 moose
We started the day with a long but smooth portage to Gordon Lake, where I hooked a very large pike, which un-hooked itself after a couple minutes of strong pulling. Once into Cherokee we started seeing many more signs of other travelers, both in canoes and in campsites. During the first of the four portages into Sawbill, we passed a couple of other groups who were double portaging. Cam and Scott were buddies from Detroit and Ohio, obviously concerned about getting a site on Sawbill for the night. The other group of 3 was from Cincinnati. We felt a mix of guilt and relief passing them -- no way we couldn’t since we were single portaging -- since we knew we would have a better shot at a site on Sawbill.
During the travel between Cherokee and Sawbill we mused on various plans for getting a site. Since we wanted to be leaving Sawbill Outfitters by 9:30-10am to be sure we got to the airport in time, we wanted to get down the lake as far as possible. We decided that we would leave a pack at the first reasonable site we found, and then paddle down the lake to see if we found anything closer.
Site 911 was the first we found open, so we dropped Libby’s pack in a prominent place. Paddling past site 913 we chatted with a camper there who noted they had seen a couple of open sites down the lake that morning. The next site, 2312, was taken. We paddled toward 914 but couldn’t find it, going all the way to the portage to Smoke Lake, finally deciding we must have missed it. We u-turned and put a keen eye on the bank, where we saw to our dismay that a woman was pulling up to what was obviously site 914. Dang! She seemed to be trying to say something to us but we couldn’t hear her. Finally, we understood: “I’m not staying here, just checking it out!” Whew, what a relief. We spoke with Kim for a bit while she walked around the site, and we set up our tent near the bank for all to see. Kim had been on a solo trip and was ready to use up all of the words she had stored away for several days.
Knowing we had about 2.5 miles of paddling -- each way -- to retrieve the pack, we didn’t waste any time. We soon realized that if we ran into Cam/Scott or the other group, we could tell them about what would now be empty site 911. No sooner had we discussed this, than we saw 2 paddlers coming down the lake. Looks like Cam and Scott! We beelined toward them, and they seemed to have “what the heck?!” looks on their faces at our aggressive approach. We explained the situation, and after a bit of hesitation (Cam: “we have to paddle 45 minutes BACK?!” Scott: “it’s better than coming up with nothing”) we all turned north toward the site. I figured we might leave them in the dust -- Libby is very strong and the other group seemed quite shot -- but they were powerful strokers, Cam pulling about half the rate I was but with obviously multiples of force.
As we got closer to site 911 we saw that it was being investigated by another group -- the guys from Cincinnati! Scott immediately suggested that he and Cam could share the site with the other group -- “pay it forward”, he said -- and we left them all to their evening, getting to know each other. It felt a bit bittersweet to not join the party but we still had 2.5 miles of paddling back down the lake.
The site was great -- a steep hill led to a hidden fire ring and nice tent site, and the rocks at the lake were perfect for cooking and hanging out. I tried pretty hard to catch just one last fish, but the water was very shallow all around the site. I finally started throwing a Johnson’s Silver Minnow (copper color), which I had tried a few times previously with no luck. After several casts this monster lure broke the line and went sailing off into the horizon. It was so shallow I thought I might find it on a swim, but when I went out looking the next morning I had no luck. No worries, I have a whole year to replace what was lost.
We enjoyed the pink sky as we ate our final dinner on the rocks by the lake.
For the day: 7 portages, 598 rods, 14.8 miles paddling (including back and forth between sites)
We got our earliest start ever and paddled in tranquility down glassy-smooth waters to the Sawbill dock. After landing at 8:30, checking in and settling up we were on the road by 9:30. We had hoped to have a visit with one of the folks we had talked to before the trip -- Paul or Johnny -- but they weren’t at the window. We did have a brief download of our trip with a very nice member of the crew. We later realized how much we missed coming “home” to debrief with our outfitters of the past several years, Jeff, Donna and Jake Hway of Way to Go Outfitters in Ely, who feel almost like family.
Incredibly, we saw Kim at an intersection on the Sawbill road and stopped to chat on our way to MSP.