BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

September 27 2020

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: 14
Elevation: 1802 feet
Latitude: 47.8699
Longitude: -90.8858
Sawbill Lake - 38

Sawbill, Easy-Breezy

by bottomtothetap
Trip Report

Entry Date: September 03, 2020
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 4

Trip Introduction:
After dozens of BWCA adventures, I had never been to Sawbill Lake so decided to give it a try for this year's outing--a trip taken with my childhood friend and frequent canoe trip partner Craig, our mutual friend Steve, who had been on a number of trips before, including with Craig but never with me, and Jeff, our chiropractor, who had never been to the BWCA before this season

Day 1 of 5

Thursday, September 03, 2020 After getting loaded up at my house in St. Cloud, MN we departed late in the morning and were on our way to Lake Superior's North Shore and eventually Sawbill Lake. We arrived early in the evening at Superior Ridge near Schroeder, MN, our home for the first night. Their two-bedroom condo, with kitchen, was an ideal set-up for our group of four guys and allowed us to cook and enjoy an evening meal right there. Craig's skills at the charcoal grill meant we were able to feast on some of the best grilled salmon any of us had ever tasted. That, along with the delicious asparagus and potatoes, capped by a dessert of fresh watermelon home-grown in Craig's garden, indicated we would really be eating well on this trip! The night ended with a few beverages and jokes that since we had all either passed or were flirting with 60, bringing Jeff, our chiropractor, along on this trip was a pretty good idea! With this great of a start we were all eager for the next day when the REAL adventure was to begin.   


Day 2 of 5

Friday, September 04, 2020 After a delicious and hearty breakfast, again, right at Superior Ridge and a stop for bait at the Holiday in Tofte, we hit the Sawbill Trail on our way to the put-in point. When we arrived, Sawbill Outfitters and the landing was this big buzz of activity. It was like the Grand Central Station of canoeing with people and vehicles everywhere! We obtained our permit and a few rental items before taking our place in line to launch. Finally we were able to get underway and paddled off into a stiff breeze.

When planning started for this trip back in January, we had initially thought of going all of the way to Cherokee Lake the first day. As we closed in on our trip dates we conceded to our not-young condition (and reduced ambition) and revised our plan to instead target Smoke, Burnt or Fire. Now, after seeing all of the people and being challenged a bit by the wind, we decided to just grab an open site on Sawbill and base-camp there the rest of the trip. This would mean zero portages--a first for me, but with a bit of extra gear and a trip-priority of relaxation, this approach had a lot of appeal. Besides, Sawbill looked like a beautiful lake and it seemed a bit of a shame to not fully enjoy it by just passing through.

As we paddled by a site on the eastern shore, just before we got into Sawbill's wider north end, we chatted briefly with a couple there who informed us that they were soon leaving and if we wanted the site we were welcome to it. With the sites we could see up ahead already looking occupied, this seemed like a good opportunity so as this couple left, we moved in. It was nice to have the "site-scramble" part of the trip behind us and we prepared to settle in for the next few days. The many groups we soon saw passing by confirmed that grabbing this site was a wise decision. While the landing to this campsite was not the greatest I'd seen and it had not received very much praise ratings-wise, the site really wasn't half bad! There was a very nice rock "porch" along the lake and plenty of open space. The fire grate had decent seating and the surrounding trees provided good protection from the still-pesky wind (the cool September days meant no breeze would be needed to blow bugs away). Tent pads were decent and the new style latrine--square with a lid--was set well back in the woods, assuring privacy and that no nasty odors would drift into camp. 

Once supper time rolled around it was time for Craig to again show his cooking prowess. Our fresh steaks and hobo-dinner vegetables cooked over an open fire were delicious! When the sun went down, finally the breeze subsided as well and a nice evening fire along with some star gazing ended a great first day on the water.      


Day 3 of 5

Saturday, September 05, 2020 The next morning we were greeted with gorgeous views of a still lake and islands surrounded in misty fog. But as soon as the sun gained some height in the sky, the wind picked up again as well. That rather discouraged us from going out in the waves for some morning fishing but we were content enough to just hang out and give Steve a chance to try out his new Jet Boil stove and coffee press during our leisurely breakfast and to try some casting from shore. By lunchtime this had only yielded a snaky little northern for me so we were going to have to take on the breeze and the bouncy water for some earnest fishing. We found some decent-sized rocks and tied them in to each of our canoes so we could drop them as anchors to help us hold position in the chop. Jeff and I went over to the west side of Sawbill to check out the area by Handle Creek while Craig and Steve were going to work some islands nearby. Our location produced only a couple of small bass for Jeff but Craig had managed a nice smallie by the islands. Unfortunately, Craig and Steve's rope then soon lost it's anchor so they were going to have to return to shore. Jeff and I decided to take over their spot and another small bass or two soon took his bait.

Just for something different, I decided to start casting a Dardevle spoon and quickly felt a snag in the rocks. Except, the "snag" started moving ("rock" bass?). Then the pulling got pretty intense and I told Jeff to get the net. As I got the fish near the canoe it went on a run and zinged line off of my reel. I tightened the drag and again worked it near the boat and again this fish ran still zinging line against the increased drag. For a third time I worked the fish in near the canoe and this time got a glimpse of a light tan-colored thick body that exceeded three feet in length. After another jerk or two this beast began to tire so I was able to get it in close enough for Jeff to reach it with our short-handled net. I just managed to get the huge head (and nasty teeth) above the surface as Jeff got the net to it. Then, with one final thrash of it's head, the fish ripped it's mouth free of the lure and was gone. Dang! No fish, no photo, but...still plenty of fun! It's not thought that Sawbill has any muskies but with the behavior of this fish and it's color (much lighter than a typical northern) that's almost what we were thinking. I was not able to note any side markings or other features to distinguish it as a muskie so it was likely "just" a big feisty northern. At any rate, what a thrill! I was eager start casting that Daredevle again but then I noticed the lure. This fish had pretty much destroyed the hooks, bending them way out of their normal configuration. Time to re-rig. The next hour of fishing produced nothing for Jeff or me and since we already had a great story to tell we decided to get out of the wind and return to camp.

Craig had released the one keeper bass he caught and all Steve was able to do from shore was another small northern so instead of a fish fry we were going to be eating the freeze-dried food we had brought as back-up for supper. This was actually pretty tasty (Mountain House spaghetti in red sauce) and set the tone for another nice evening with a fire and, as before, a break from the breeze and glass-like water once the sun set.          


Day 4 of 5

Sunday, September 06, 2020 Our next morning dawned with threatening clouds on the horizon and again a rather "fresh" breeze. This made for another lazy morning around camp but lazy was good! As things turned toward noon, the leaden skies started to issue a few rumbles from the distance so we took a break from our still non-productive shore fishing and erected a tarp. The sky darkened as the rumbling became more frequent along with the wind picking up a bit and it looked like we were in for a good old thunderstorm. Fortunately for us, the bulk of the storm slid by to our north and all we got was a few sprinkles over the next hour or so. This was just enough to get everything wet but when the rain ended, it all dried quickly in the steady wind.

Since fish was on the menu for supper again we decided that another attempt in the canoes was needed, so off we went into the choppy water, rock anchors at the ready. This time Jeff and I decided to check out a few inlets around the corner to our north while Craig and Steve went back again to the previous day's islands. The area that Jeff and I fished looked promising with lots of structure and variations of depth but the weather front that moved through must have given the fish lockjaw and we couldn't even manage a nibble. While sitting in a protected little bay, we could see white caps forming in the more open part of the lake so we decided a return to camp was in order in case the waves got any bigger yet. We were able to hopscotch along some islands on the way back which lessened the amount of bounce that we had to navigate through. Steve was lucky enough to haul in a nice-sized bass where they had fished but that is all he and Craig brought back to camp.

Before supper, Steve decided to make one more attempt at shore fishing and got excited when he saw a swirl near his bobber. It was soon revealed that the swirling in the water was a curious and playful otter who was just as interested in us as we were in it. It continued to pop it's head up out of the water as it gave us one quick peek after another. It seemed that this animal wanted to come ashore, which it actually did at one point but after getting another look at us, it was back in the lake again. We were impressed with how big these creatures actually were and admired the sleek swimming movements it displayed. After a visit that we both seemed to enjoy, the otter moved on to explore new territory. 

With just that one fish, which we did clean and fry up, more freeze-dried food would be needed for everyone to get enough to eat. This time it was some curried vegetables from Backpacker's Pantry--again, not bad!

As the evening progressed the wind continued to increase. At one point it looked like the horizon to our west was on fire with a big column of smoke billowing up. I wondered if there had been a lightning strike from the day's earlier storm. It soon was apparent, however that the "smoke" was just the clouds being quickly moved by the wind and the orange glow was a pretty sunset. As darkness fell we enjoyed another fire but it did not last long since the strong breeze meant plenty of air for the flames and the wood we had accumulated burned up quickly. Before turning in for the night, I decided to make one last "pit-stop" in the woods a bit behind our tent. As I turned around to go back to the tent I was quite startled to see that the otter had returned and was standing there watching me from just a couple feet away!! As soon as we made eye contact (and I had jumped about two feet off the ground!) it casually ambled back down to the water. When I told the guys about it they laughed at what a sight I must have been as this critter startled me.

Once we were in the tents we could hear the wind continue to blow, and in fact get stronger even though it was now well after sunset. It continued to howl all night and at one point brought some light rain with it. Some of the gusts really shook the tent and we started to worry about the possibility of a tree or two coming down. Fortunately that never happened and we were able to get some shut-eye even with the noisy gale moving through the forest.        


Day 5 of 5

Monday, September 07, 2020 Come morning the wind had abated just a little. Even though it had rained, everything was dry by morning as mother nature's blow-dryer had been on all night. This was good since today was get-away day and it is always better to pack the gear up dry than if it is soaking wet. About an hour into packing we took a break for an oatmeal breakfast and more of Steve's delicious coffee made with the Jet Boil and press. About halfway through this meal we heard a "Hello, anyone home?" come up to us from the water's edge. It was a man and woman from the Forest Service wanting to pay us a friendly visit. When they joined us in camp, they checked our permit and asked us some questions about our site and how our trip was going, along with dispensing some wilderness wisdom on how we could enhance our enjoyment of the Boundary Waters and help keep it enjoyable for others as well. This encounter with the rangers was a quite-pleasant way to wrap up our trip and we wished them well as they moved on thanking them for the important work they were doing in the BWCA.

When breakfast and packing were complete, we loaded up and started our return to Sawbill Landing. While the breeze by now had only subsided some, it blew from our backs and made our return to the landing an easy one-hour paddle. COVID-19 meant that post-trip showers were not available at Sawbill Outfitters this year so we simply got our gear loaded onto our transportation and we were on our way home. We did stop for lunch at Camp 61 in Beaver Bay (I hope we weren't TOO stinky!) which gave a chance to asses the trip over some really tasty sandwiches and satisfying cold beverages, with which we toasted each other for a successful outing, a great time and a job well done.  


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