Day 1 of 5
Thursday, September 03, 2020 Gusts to 45 mph was added to the forecast on the weather radio that morning. That seemed a lot more threatening than the 35 mph forecast we heard the night before. We wondered a bit about whether even to start as we got out of the car to push a balsam fir out of the road enough to get to Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. I hadn't been to Sawbill since 1969, and it seemed strange to think that the granddaughter of the founders was now running the place with her husband Dan. We checked in, got our gear packed and with trepidation stood on the landing watching one party struggle against the wind and another seemingly trapped on the far shore, struggling to get toward the Alton portage. I quickly found my stern paddler skills challenged as I hadn't paddled a canoe without a lake keel and the gusting winds seemed to enjoy trying to spin us around.... Note to self...get in better shape next time...The two canoes quickly got separated as we chose different means to quarter into the wind and moments of driving rain. We were already behind schedule to get to Cherokee in early afternoon and my concern about getting a good campsite and the headwind gave us an opportunity to change plans. We would do the Cherokee loop backwards and I hoped a campsite would be available on Cherokee by the weekend. Going with the wind toward the Smoke Lake portage was a great relief to my mostly novice companions, and here I noticed another change...no portage signs, the ones that used to mark the next lake name and the rods of distance involved...Got our feet wet for the first time unloading the kevlar crafts and as we chugged over our first portage, as usual, realized that we packed a bit too much. I couldn't help but notice that the packs with their padded shoulder straps and hip belts were so much more comfortable than those army-green Duluth packs with the leather straps of yore. Smoke was an easy float as we put in off a makeshift dock in the shallows and took advantage of the wind at our back to the Burnt Lake portage. As novice campers we chose to put in at the first open campsite on Burnt for our orientation on where stuff was, how it would work and the sense of relief that we had done reasonably well our first day. With my almost 70 year old back, I immediately missed the log tables that were on sites way back when. Bending over all the time has its disadvantages, but bending over to cut up my first night steak was a pleasure.
Day 2 of 5
Friday, September 04, 2020 The cold front that blew in Thursday had passed and we awoke to a much quieter world. Instead of the low roar of wind through spruce, fir and pine, the warm water and cold air had combined to bathe the site in light fog, moisturizing everything lightly. That first morning breakfast of bacon and eggs and steaming coffee tasted much better than the same thing at home. We discussed the goal for the day. My sons-in-law advocated to make it clear to Cherokee. I didn't have the heart to tell them that my old body did not want to go that far, plus I remembered the Sitka Lake portgage into Cherokee and just how much fun that was even 50 years ago. So we settled on the goal of Weird Lake and hoped the single campsite would be open. The sun shown beautifully as the breeze built up again from the northwest. A pair of loons, without musical fanfare came within just a few feet of the lead canoe as we left the camp. 230 rods for our first longer portage into Kelly seemed even longer. Kelly was a nice change, As the breezes swirled over the hills and trees, we made great time. Took the 65 rod portage into Jack and immediately came upon our first beaver dam. I had forgotten how easy crossing them had been 50 years ago with old, heavy aluminum craft, but with the new lightweight canoes without ribs for support...well, more unloading and reloading. The passage through Jack was accompanied by a bald eagle (uncommon half a century ago) and a cow moose and yearling calf calmly watched us pass and then ambled to shore as we cruised through the last wide bay of Jack. The short 12 rod portage found us by the Temperance River's early fall flow through the rocks between lake...always good to hear the symphony of water over rock. Another beaver dam immediately faced us...but with some clever maneuvering and additional unloading and reloading we discovered the campsite just a few yards above. On the map it appeared to be on the west side of the lake, but it was on the opposite point. The fireplace was in the wide open area, but as the afternoon faded, so did the wind. Despite a lidless latrine and a somewhat divided campsite, we settled in for our second evening. I am a restless sleeper when it comes to sleeping on the ground in a narrow mummy bag…but the benefits were soon to be gained. The distinct and familiar loon laughter and cries slowly faded and in the middle of the night I awoke to a sound that had been very unlikely to have been heard here in 1970. Three, then four, possibly more timber wolves joined the chorus to the waning moon. What an incredibly haunting sound, a song of a lonely place, yet so very, very wild and so very, very much a message of “welcome to our world.” It made the trip, so far.
Day 3 of 5
Saturday, September 05, 2020 I snuck out of the tent so as to not awaken my weary grandson as I sensed sunrise. It was those magic mornings. Sigurd Olson’s “white horses” of mist were dancing from the portage to our east past our point to the open lake. Hints of the mist rise off the warm waters into the cool air and as the breeze presses on the little columns, it spreads the tops of the columns forward, much like the heads of real horses. As the breeze pushed them along, it was like watching a small herd trotting together across the surface…their trot accompanied by the water splashing in the stream behind them. Ahhhh. We broke camp early so as to get to Cherokee and hopefully grab a campsite. I got overconfident of my skills real quickly and allowed us to head into a branch of weird (didn’t look at the map) There was a definite channel through the shallow vegetation and it appeared to lead to an open rock shoreline like most portages appear…with a log solidly in front of the turn which could have been to the portage. A ridiculous looking old man and his grandson maneuvered over the log and into the dead end…and out again. The map couldn’t have been clearer. One needs to look at maps (and the compass) now and then. Portaged into a no-name lake and the other canoe failed to follow us after leaving yet another beaver dam crossing….Had a good laugh that they had done just what I had foolishly accomplished. The ¾ mile slog to South Temperance was work for this old guy, but youth did well. South Temperance is an attractive lake and I had been there a couple times in 69 and 70. But we were in a hurry and pushed against the breeze to the North Temperance portage. A quick turn and we were headed over the next 105 rod journey to Sitka. This seemed familiar now. I had crossed it at least four times on previous trips. From Sitka to Cherokee, we crossed the Laurentian divide…water either headed to Superior on the east side (and eventually to the Atlantic) or to Hudson Bay on the west. This made the rocky, up and down carry a little more tolerable, thinking at least it was a “divide” which sounds more important. Dropping down from that 3 ½ foot boulder in the middle of the path brought back the memory of trying to carry an 80# canoe up that same boulder years ago. It was here I most remembered the old canoe rests at the top of slopes where you could put the bow on a horizontal log attached high up between two trees or a tree and a post. With great relief we appeared on the shore of Cherokee. We had met one group of guys who told us they knew of one campsite that was still open. But the one they described had folks unloading already. Surprisingly, the first site we came to in the opposite direction was open…not marked as a campsite on this website, but was on our map. It had a nice view to the east and north from the “front porch”, a steep, short climb in, and space for our two 3-man tents. We set up for a layover, getting to spread out for the first time. I noted many fewer loons than I remembered from previous trips. Saw several more bald eagles…over the course of the rest of the day. A beautiful evening…could here some younglings swimming and having a great time in the campsite across the bay from us. We counted the day a success and finding the campsite so soon after getting to Cherokee was a great relief. Later we watched a group searching from island to island and campsite to campsite for a place to stay. We had been lucky..but they didn’t approach our location.
Day 4 of 5
Sunday, September 06, 2020 Layover day was uneventful We had hoped to explore Cherokee, took off and got clear across to the west side when oncoming ridge of clouds and repeated thunder made a decision to return to the campsite mandatory. Unfortunately, it didn’t amount to much of anything after an hour or two, so we rested, got ready for an early start for our last day by pre-packing and re-organizing. The cold front forecast on the weather radio came through in late afternoon..dark clouds, strong winds, gusts, and waves. Fortunately that quickly passed and the clouds broke up leaving a fair amount of sunshine and a rosy sunset accompanied by a strong breeze. The forecast for the next day was 35 mph gusts from the northwest, hence our wanting to get an early start in case we ran into difficulties
Day 5 of 5
Monday, September 07, 2020 The route back to Sawbill. Remarkably, the morning breeze was much less gusty and more steady than forecast. We were able to avoid most of the light rollers by using islands as shields until we got to Cherokee Creek and headed west. What a different experience the creek was than I remembered from the 60’s….lower water, a nice beaver dam, much windfall. But it was a mostly a wind-less journey which was welcome. We took the 180 rod portage to Skoop, crossing the Laurentian divide yet again, to enter the Sawbill drainage. Took the short 12 rod into the Ada Creek, but the low water was a real bummer with a load. We could see that many were using a makeshift, but somewhat improved portage mostly along the creek channel. The sons-in-law unloaded the craft and soloed the canoes downstream to deeper waters. We portaged the gear and then continued, often slipping off sharp rocks into the black muck of the northwoods version of wet soil… Met several parties headed back on this Labor Day. Enjoyed hearing about their adventures, including the guys that started on Brule the day we started on Sawbill. At least we didn’t capsize as they did, which was not surprising considering the size of the cooler they had and the amount of stuff they were carrying. Another portage and into Ada Creek again and then another, and our last portage and back to Sawbill.