BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
April 01 2023
Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
The Four Solos - 2006
October 06, 2006
Number of Days:
The title, "The 4 Solos" makes me think of "The Three Amigos". You know that silly movie about the big screen cowboys with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short? I guess Steve would be Steve Martin, Larry would be Chevy Chase, and Jim would be Martin Short. I guess that makes me the donkey. Hmmm ... maybe I’d be Jon Lovitz. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
The trip planning went smoothly via email. Assignments were made for gear responsibilities. Jim was once again "Cookie" though he admitted that his wife, Rachel, played a part in the planning and pre-prep. Rachel earned her "Honorary 4-Solos" certificate many times over (I guess that makes her Patrice Martinez).
Weather is very variable in the month of October, so planning the proper clothing is a challenge. I made a SWAG of lows in the 20s and highs in the mid 50s and packed accordingly. The temperatures turned out to be much warmer than my SWAG.
Sawbill Weather History from http://www.sawbill.com/www/news/weather/index.cfm
Date HighTemp LowTem Baro RelHum7AM 9AM Temp Moisture Snow
10/09/06 62 27 30.16 77% 29 0"
10/8/06 62 34 30.39 72% 35 0
10/7/06 68 51 29.86 74% 58 0
10/6/06 61 38 30.06 69% 51 0
Of course a week later, the lows were in the 20s, the highs in the upper 30s, and there was 10" of snow!
Most of my personal and group items were quickly assembled two days before the trip with two exceptions: 1) a sleeping bag; and, 2) a canoe. The researching and purchase of both of these took considerable time during the planning period.
Regarding the sleeping bag, I own a summer and a winter sleeping bag, but nothing in between; hence I was in the market for a 20-degree bag. After much shopping I wound up with a Slumberjack Ultimate 20°F Thermolite® Extreme Sleeping Bag (carry weight 3 lbs). I had been leaning toward a down bag because of its weight and pack volume, but was very pleased with my choice.
Of canoes, I knew that I did not want to do the Lujenida to Zenith portage (480 rods) carrying my Old Town Penobscott 15, and so was in the market for a lightweight one. What I was looking for was something similar to the Penobscott but made of Kevlar. I thought the Souris River Tranquility or the Swift Shearwater would be nice, but with no prospects as my deadline approached I had to compromise. I went with the Wenonah Encounter (fitted with a CVCA Yoke & Back band). The Encounter is 17' long, 31.5" wide, 25" at the gunwales, and made of Kevlar Ultra-light, weighing 38#s.
The plan was that Larry and Steve would drive up together, and Jim and I together. Larry and Steve were leaving after work. However, Jim and I both got the day off, so Jim picked me up at my house and we were on the road at 10:00 a.m.
What a grand day for a fall drive! We watched the brilliant fall colors gradually diminish as we made our way further north. Too bad Steve and Larry would be driving in the dark and miss this!
We arrived in Grand Marais at 5:00 p.m. and checked in to the Wedgewood Motel. Larry and Steve would have a room two doors down from us. Jim and I went to town and wandered about checking out the harbor and the area. Supper was at the Gunflint Tavern. I’ve been there before. It is certainly OK but doesn’t excite me. I’m more of a Vertin’s or Cranberry’s type of guy. Next time I’m in Grand Marais I think I want to check out the VFW for supper.
After dinner it was back to the motel to watch a little TV and off to bed at 10:00 p.m. Before we turned in, we check to see if Larry and Steve had arrived yet. Nope, no car with canoes in the parking lot but our own.
Jim and I were up at 4:30 a.m. expecting a knock on the door. The plan was Steve and Larry would wake us at 4:30 and we’d head to the South Of the Border Café (SOB). We looked outside, and ... still their car was not there! Now we were worried. We decided to head for SOB. Maybe they were there. Nope. So now we’re imagining all kind of things.
Ten minutes later they walk in. "Why didn’t you guys wait for us?" Turns out they parked their car on the side of the motel where we didn’t think to look. They were there the entire time.
After breakfast we backtrack down Highway 61 to Tofte and then up the Sawbill Trail. We arrive at the put-in at 7:30 a.m. There were lots of cars in the parking lot. Four other people show up to enter for a trip. We talked to them a bit. They’re going to Phoebe. At least we were heading in different directions.
At 8:00 a.m. we left Sawbill landing with the wind at our backs.
Beautiful morning. Nice paddle to the Kelso portage. It was a bit tricky to find but an easy "walk-in-the-park" kind of portage. We checked out the Dolman and posed for some pictures. I’m sure glad those other guys know what they’re doing cause I would have paddle right past it. I always thought it was going to be bigger and more obvious from the water.
I love paddling the Kelso River -- a narrow, neat, intimate stream.
Likewise, Lujenida is a nice, little lake to paddle. However, after it comes the long, 480-rod portage to Zenith. Really the portage is not difficult just long – very, very long. I was surprised to run into two other people doing the portage. At first I though it may be someone from our group but instead they were day-trippers. They had left their canoe at the beginning of the portage, were going to walk the trail, have lunch, then head back to Sawbill.
The other surprise I had on this portage was the bugs ... I mean it was October. Aren’t all the bugs suppose to be gone? There weren’t many, but I did see some gnats and mosquitoes. Both buzzed me a bit but didn’t bite.
The double portage took me 2.5 hours to complete.
Once on Zenith Lake, on the agenda was checking out the old airplane that crashed there. Again, I’m glad I have my tour guides, because I never would have found it on my own. There isn’t much left, and it wasn’t a very big plane, but it was cool to see. We also noticed that the lone campsite on Zenith was occupied. What’s with all the people?
By this time the wind had really kicked up. The wind was making paddling not so fun. At least it was at our backs. We crossed Duck Lake and reached the difficult (really!) 3-rod portage to Hug Lake. Steve was at the landing so I pulled up along the beaver dam. I unloaded my packs. The wind was blowing my canoe into the beaver dam, so there was no chance of it escaping. I carried my packs across the 3-rod portage; put them down; and turned around. I was a few feet from my canoe. All of a sudden a gust of wind hit; it picked up my canoe; and rolled it towards me! Luckily it only took one-and-a-half revolutions before it stopped. No holes. Lots of scratches. 2 bruises. The stern got the worse of it -- a deep scratch down to the cloth that's going to need some touch up. The rest just needs some varnish. I did the rest of the trip with a duct tape patch to protect the cloth. DANG! I knew my new canoe would get some scratches on this trip, but ... DANG!
Really I’m not too upset, mostly I’m embarrassed. The other guys made me feel better by securing their boats on portages, as if it could happen to them, too. In fact, it became SOP to carry the canoe up the portage trail a bit before setting it down to get them out of the wind.
I was, however, getting tired and fighting the wind wasn’t helping. Then while paddling on Hug Lake, I nearly flipped the canoe! Boy! Was that close! Thankfully it was my only near swamping of the trip.
The 80-rod portage to Mesaba was easy, though I felt some trepidation about paddling the lake with that wind. But I figured, "Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Deal with it when it’s time." My philosophy paid off because, luckily, the wind died down momentarily and we had a nice paddle that took us to the northern most campsite on Mesaba. We’re home for the night at 5:30 p.m.
The previous guests left a nice supply of welcome wood. Thank you. We set up camp during which I notice a fly in camp. What’s that about? More bugs.
Jim made steaks and mashed potatoes. They were great! Garlic cheese biscuits came from the reflector oven. Pudding cups for dessert. Supper was eaten after dark -- a long, and windy, day.
We had a nightcap at 9:00 p.m. and to bed at 9:30. Everyone was tired and a little sore from the day’s travels. Between the nightcap and bed, while I was doing my pre-bedtime rituals, a squirrel ran over my foot causing me to scream like a schoolgirl. What in the h-e-c-k is a squirrel doing up after dark! Ever since the mouse-up-my-pant-leg incident a few years ago, I’ve been a bit skittish about small mammals and my lower extremities.
I was up at 8:00 a.m. It was an interesting night. I was awakened occasionally by a mouse climbing on my tent fly. I’d slap the rain fly through my tent and send the mouse flying. It seemed as though I could hear a faint, "Wheeee!" when I did it, which may explain the multiple occurrences.
It was windy all night long. Not a good sign. Usually the wind dies at night and picks up again sometime after noon, ... right? It was warm though. It must have been in the high 40s. Aside from the mouse amusement park, I slept well. In the morning I did see a deer tick on my tent. I didn’t know they were up this far north. Perhaps it was with the mouse, and like us, was up here on vacation.
Breakfast that morning was blueberry pancakes, bacon, and coffee. How could it get better? Maple syrup? Yep. We had that, too.
The wind was bad today. We’re not technically wind-bound. If we HAD to go somewhere we probably could, but it would not be fun. None of us elect to paddle out in it to take a day trip. Instead I read, collected firewood, and generally hung around camp. Jim and Larry went for a hike; Larry to get some pictures; Jim to act as his model. (Note: Jim’s board name is Jim/WI, but on trips he has been dubbed with many others including Cookie, Bow Weight, Froggy, and now Cover Girl. I’m sure there are others.). Steve and I saw two grouse in camp while the other two were off on their photo shoot.
It is a warm day. We figure the high must be in the high 60s. Larry pulls out a thermometer. It is 73.
As evening approaches we decide to try a paddle even though the wind is still blowing strong. The paddle is very short for me. The others make it longer. The Encounter really likes to catch the wind!! I was OK (not great, but OK) when it was loaded, but when I tried to paddle it empty in that wind it was a handful! It just wanted to spin.
Steve was out a little longer and then came back to keep me company. When Larry and Jim made it back they reported that others were in the south campsite on Mesaba. More people.
Jim made one of his famous dinners. Always good stuff. We have a hard time staying awake but weredetermined to toast Wendal and Katlin at 9:00 p.m. Their platyfest was going on in Madison.
After the toast, it was off to bed. No squirrel incident tonight. I guess the ol’ schoolgirl scream is an effective deterrent.
Again, it was windy all night.
Up at 8:00 a.m. The night before we had decided to start back in the morning because it took so long to come in. We wanted to get a couple portages in to make our final day a bit shorter. However, there was only one campsite between Mesaba and the 480-rod portage to Lujenida. It was the campsite on Zenith that was occupied when we went through two days earlier.
The wind changed directions during the night, and was now largely at out backs again. However, getting to the portage on Mesaba was a challenge requiring some cross wind paddling. I instead paddled into the wind, found a calm place, turned and rode the wind to the portage. My kind and patient partners were waiting at the portage for me.
We crossed Hug and Duck without incident. We were all careful about the security of our canoes. We made Zenith and found the campsite still occupied.
As we’re on the lake, two guys came off the Lujenida – Zenith portage. Their canoe was flying both the US and Canadian flags. They shot by heading the direction we came from. They didn’t say much, but when I took their picture they asked if they were going to be in the newspaper. I said no and they kept going. I never said that I wasn’t going to put them on the internet though.
Those two really seemed to know what they were doing. The wind didn’t seem to bother them at all.
We discussed briefly going to Fredrick Lake, but decided it didn’t really gain us anything, so opted for Kelso. Of course, that meant doing the 480-rod portage. I started the portage at 2:00 p.m. and finished at 4:30 p.m. DANG! I thought I was faster this time! I was the last to finish. I thought I did pretty well, but the other guys are faster than me. I saw those mosquitoes again.
We met two moose hunters from Duluth on the trail. I’ve seen more people on this trip than the one Jim and I took in June! They were nice guys though. It turned out they were the ones camped on Zenith. If they are successful, they will be doing that 480-rod portage multiple times hauling out a moose! Guess I shouldn’t complain. I can’t imagine how long it will take them to complete the portage under those circumstances.
That portage certainly is tiring, but the worse for me was the sore feet. Walking 4.5 miles in Chotas will do that. Jim took a fall on the portage and nearly turned an ankle. There was a hole on the trail hidden by leaves and Jim stepped in it. He tweaked his knee a bit, but was ok. It could have been bad. Jim, Steve, and Larry filled the hole with small rocks so it wouldn’t happen to someone else. I would have helped, but I was behind them and didn’t even know it had happened.
That paddle along Lujenida and the Kelso River is nice. We made it to the northern most site of Kelso Lake at 5:00 p.m. This is a very nice site, though it doesn’t look it from the water. It is sloped, but the FS crews have leveled off two nice spots for tents. Larry and Jim took one for the Lean-To, and Steve the other for his two-man tent. My tent is a true solo and can fit anywhere, so I found a level spot by the water’s edge that work fine for me.
After our camp was set up, we went about doing camp chores – filtering water and gathering firewood, even though there was another nice supply of cut & split welcome wood. Jim made supper -- Jim’s Famous Chili with Rachel’s corn muffins. Delicious! There was some debate whether Rachel’s secret corn muffin ingredient is Amaretto, Amarillo, or armadillo. I think I know it is NOT a Texas city or an armor-plated possum.
We hung out around the fire talking. These are a great bunch of guys to talk to. They are smart and funny and you never have to work at a conversation. They’re not much to look at, but it was dark, so that was OK. There is a huge rock backing the fire, perhaps 7 feet high, which was perfect considering the night was cooling off. The rock blocked the wind from the lake and reflected the heat back to us. It was a cozy set up.
Bed at 9:30 p.m.
At 6:30 a.m. I heard pans clanging from the next campsite down. At first I thought, "bear" and figured we would probably be next in line. But it happened again a minute later, and it was so rhythmic, not like banging to scare something away. Then it dawned on me. It’s that camp’s wake up alarm. How inconsiderate!
It was cold last night, but I was nice and warm in my sleeping bag. I slept great with it and my Big Agnes air mattress. I didn’t want to leave it. An hour later I pulled myself from the bag at 7:30 a.m.
The wind was gone, however, it had been replaced with frost on the ground and a little ice in my water bottle.
I started packing up my stuff and my stirring woke the others. We had an oatmeal and coffee breakfast. Despite the quick breakfast we were hesitant to leave. The trip out would be short. We broke camp slowly and were on the water at 10:15 a.m.
We had a nice leisurely paddle back, interrupted by the 13-rod portage to Sawbill. We’re to the take out at 1:00 p.m., and another group was taking out at the same time. Too many people on this trip! We left Sawbill at 1:30 and headed for the Coho Café at the foot of the Trail for a late lunch. It was busy there, too.
At 2:45 p.m. we left Tofte to head for home. The trip back was uneventful and Jim got me to my house at 9:30 p.m. The family came out to say hi to Jim and to help me unload.
It was a great trip.
The temperature was more than could be asked for. No rain.
I got to see a lot of fall colors, albeit on the drive up. Still with the leaves down you can see very far into the woods giving you a neat perspective of the BW.
The company was top-notch
The food was great. "Cookie" can cook for me anytime.
I got to travel a section I haven’t been to before (Kelso – Mesaba) and see the Dolman and Zenith Plane.
The moon was full, or nearly so.
I was hoping to see a moose, but didn’t. I thought we’d see some deer, but didn’t. Neither was a disappointment to me, however. The wildlife seemed pretty quiet. Perhaps it was the wind. I was amazed that we heard a loon (and Larry saw one). We saw an eagle and an osprey. Two grouse. A tent-sliding mouse. A foot-running-over squirrel. Some mergansers. A couple ducks. I found a blue jay feather and gave it to Steve for his hat.
Though I write about too many people being seen on this trip, it was more of a not meeting expectations kind of thing. I didn’t expect to see anyone, so even though there really wasn’t that many people, it just seemed like it.
The wind was not fun ... but what can you do?
A GREAT TRIP!