BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 06 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
All Loused Up: solo loop out of Sawbill
June 29, 2021
Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days:
The original plan had been to drop off my son and his friend at Camp Menogyn on June 28th and then spend a night at my sister's cabin. However, camp switched the long trip campers to meeting in the Twin Cities and then going straight to Jay Cooke State Park for a couple days of whitewater training. So I dropped my son in town and took off for the Sawbill Campground around 4:30 pm the day before my entry permit. That meant I was ready to slip into the water early this morning. I left the Sawbill dock at 5:45 am. One other couple ahead of me...speaking of using bent shaft paddles incorrectly, one was, the other wasn't.
Beautiful still water this morning as I headed to the portage for Alton Lake. Last year, I tried single portaging, but didn't feel safe. This year, I worked hard to really trim down my gear weight. It helped that I invested in a used Wenonah Advantage which significantly cut down on my canoe weight. I also kept the base weight of my pack at about 23 lbs. and was more thoughtful about food which I kept under 11 lbs. for my planned 8 day trip.
On the first portage, I decided to start trying single portaging since it was a short distance commitment. It was a cloudy day and plenty humid. The plants were all damp so I quickly soaked everything I was wearing as I walked through the brush. I liked my paddle set up for portages (using BDBs), but I didn't like how "futzy" it was to attach the daypack to the bigger pack. Alton Lake was very quiet early in the morning and not all the campsites were full on a Tuesday. I passed one occupied site and saw some rangers having their morning coffee...wait, did I see rangers?! Yep, first time in the last 10 trips. We exchanged waves and I paddled on.
I decided to double portage to Beth since it was a longer portage and I wasn't totally confident yet. But then I decided to single portage to Ella. I kept having weird interference with the pack and the sliding seat. When I set the canoe down at the end, I discovered I had put the yoke on too far back. Lesson: always double check yoke position before hefting the canoe up.
Ella was empty which I hear is common. It is a pretty little lake and my original plan had me staying there the first night. However, with my earlier than planned start, I was not ready to set up camp yet. So I paddled around and then headed for the portage to Grace. I double portaged and was glad I did. The footing was terrible. The portage seemed like it just followed an old stream bed...rocks, rocks, and more rocks. The Grace landing was especially bad with nowhere to load the canoe and then I had to walk the boat through a slimy, partially submerged rock garden before there was finally enough water to paddle. I had a few choice words unsuitable for young children to hear.
I was considering heading to Phoebe, but some storms were brewing so I camped at site #830 on Grace. It was a good call. I set up the tent, cleaned/rinsed my feet and ate lunch. As I laid back on the rock slab to nap, it started to sprinkle. I quickly finished setting up camp and read/napped in the tent. Thunder and lightning and intermittent showers made for a lazy afternoon for me. Lots of time to stare at clouds, listen to the birds, and daydream. Such a great change of pace.
Distance traveled: 7.3 miles, Portages: 399 rods, Time: 5 hours
~Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Beth Lake, Ella Lake, Grace Lake
Happy birthday to me! I love my revived tradition of spending my birthday paddling. In the '80's, I was always at camp or canoeing and in the '90's I always tries to go whitewater kayaking.
I didn't wake until 6:40 and was on the water by 8am. I decided to double portage the first 3 short portages and then doubled portaged everything until the 2nd to last portage of the day. The only people I saw this whole day were the friendly folks from Louisiana doing some early morning fishing on Grace. It was their first visit to the BWCA and their enthusiasm and awe for the area was a great reminder how lucky I am to have this special place in my home state.
The Phoebe River east of Hazel was a pain. Very low water levels plus a beaver dam, a downed tree, and 2 rock gardens required some slow going. A lot of the short portages had a low water landing so they were longer than marked on the map. One of the worst portages of the day was the 3rd portage west of Hazel. My notes indicated that it was easy to miss. I found the low water landing but that path spit me out repeatedly onto a boulder field or the river's edge. Finally, I reached the high water landing and the going was much easier.
I didn't have breakfast until about 10:00 am when I mixed up one of my powdered smoothie mixes. Then I ate some lunch next to a stream on one of the portage a couple hours later.
For the river section west of Hazel, I left the pack and daypack strapped together the whole time. This really sped things up at the portage landings. I could still access the daypack for water and other items. I wasn't too far off trim to cause any issues on such constricted bodies of water. On one of the portages, a Spruce Grouse was strutting down the middle of the path. Its speckled butt and the red patch above its eye made it pretty distinctive. It had incredibly sleek, shiny feathers. I also saw a beaver on the river and 3 Trumpeter swan on Polly Lake.
At the start of the day, I thought I might be able to make it to Malberg Lake by 1 or 2 pm. However, the slow going on the river put me at Polly after 1pm so I decided to camp. It was hot and very sunny today. I ran out of water even though I started the day with 56 ounces. So I took site 1073 with its shady tent site, sandy landing, and good swimming rock. I took a long swim to cool down and get the day's grime off me. I rinsed all my clothes and laid them out on the hot rocks where they dried in record time. I filtered and drank A LOT of water! Despite the skies looking like T-storms could deliver some much needed rain, nothing ever developed.
All of my dinners on this trip were "just add boiling water" recipes from The Yummy Life website. I had couscous with chicken, apricots, and macadamia nuts tonight. Then, to celebrate my birthday, I steam/baked some white chocolate and berry cupcakes.
After dinner, I relaxed in a patch of grass and watched the clouds. Then a pair of Sharp-shinned hawks put on a noisy aerobatics show with shrieks and wing-tucked dives over the forest. Later a bald eagle showed up and made some wide sweeps before landing in a tree. A large fish made 4 huge leaps in the air right in front of my rock.
Tomorrow, my son starts his 29 days of BWCA travels at Crane Lake. Since they couldn't go into Canada this year, they are going to wind around the BWCA, visit some PMAs, and end with the Grand Portage. I'm sure they will have some great adventures. Sending them good vibes. Hard to believe he is off to college this fall. So many life changes.
Distance traveled: 9.3 miles, Portages: 560 rods, Time: 5.25 hours
~Grace Lake, Phoebe Lake, Knight Lake, Hazel Lake, Polly Lake
Whew! I am tired this morning. Glad I had a break-in trip with the family last month. I definitely feel stronger than I did on my solo this same time last year. I have also been training more in an effort to prep for the border challenge this fall, but not ready for 20 miles a day...yet.
Since I'm ahead of my planned itinerary, I checked the map for some options. Got out of camp at 7:00am and reached Malberg in 1.5 hours. The 4 portages were the first time (and turns out last time) I ran into any people on a portage...a couple guys on the 2nd portage out of Polly and then a father and 2 kids on the portage into Malberg. Everyone was going the opposite direction from me. All 4 portages from Polly to Malberg had easy landings. The campsite I wanted on Malberg near the start of the Louse River was open, so I stopped and set up camp. I made some oatmeal for breakfast and took a little rest.
At 9:30, I set off to paddle the 6 miles to see the Fishdance Lake pictographs. On the portage from Malberg to the Kawishiwi River, I made the mistake of putting the canoe down at the normal landing on the Kawishiwi side. It looked a bit muddy, but I thought I could shove off fine. DO NOT make this mistake! There is a little path through the grass on the right that takes you to a much better landing for low water situations. But I was committed now. I hopped rocks as far as I could go and then made the mistake of putting my feet in the mud to give a shove. Down I went in the boot sucking mud. Nerve wrecking trying to cling to the canoe and get myself free. This same portage has a beaver pond in the middle of it. When traveling from east to west, you have to step down off a 2 foot high rock into opaque water of unknown depth. Not a move my knees appreciate. I stood near the tree next to the rock and started to step down. I swear, the tree punched me and knocked the canoe clean off my shoulders! On the bright side, it made stepping down easier. The water on the path through the beaver pond reached just past my mid-thigh. The footing is not too bad but there were some hidden tripping rocks to keep you awake. Time to recruit a wolf to take out that beaver.
Lots of bald eagles soaring the thermals today. The paddle to the pictographs was quiet with only one campsite of people and they were packing up to leave. The pictos were cool to see since I haven't visited any in the BW before. I had a pleasant floating lunch while I looked at them. The paddling made for good training since it was the longest, uninterrupted stretch that I would have until my final day.
Back at the campsite, I made creamy alfredo noodles for dinner and it was delicious! The wind shifted and picked up in the evening which resulted in a lovely, bug-free evening with beautiful temps.
Distance traveled: 15.5 miles Portages: 377 rods Time: 5.5 hours
~Polly Lake, Koma Lake, Malberg Lake, River Lake, Fishdance Lake, River Lake, Malberg Lake
I slept in this morning and my body clearly needed it after yesterday's longer paddle. I had some trouble finding the portage from Malberg to Frond. I blame the low water...that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I saw a landing on the shore of Malberg right across from the campsite I used. But when I got there, it dead ended with a bunch of fish skeletons and was clearly just the spot everyone uses to clean their fish. Stumped for a bit, I finally waded through the shallows into the stream a little way and voila! there was the portage. Probably would have been more obvious in higher water.
The 14 rod portage from Frond to the puddle was strange. I never saw a landing on the south side as indicated by the map. After I pulled over some shallows, I found a very nice portage landing on the north side of the stream and it came out on a nice landing at the pond. As I paddled away, I noticed another big, beautiful landing a bit closer to the stream. Not sure where that pops out on the Frond side.
No problem finding the portage from to Boze. When traveling west to east, you come to a fork at the top of the hill. I chose left since cowdoc's notes said he had walked on cliffs overlooking the stream. It followed the stream and then turned right sharply and dropped down into the edge of the campsite. I'm guessing you could take the path to the right, but it would probably take you through the middle of the campsite.
Cowdoc's notes really helped on the next portage. He warned me the portage was divided into 2 parts due to a beaver dam. Based on time, the first stretch was about 40 rods and then I put the boat back in the water to paddle the stream/beaver pond. Then I took out and portaged about 60 rods more to the Louse River. These trails are not well traveled so it is a big timesaver to paddle that middle section versus trying to continue on the faint portage trail that goes around the pond.
In general, this stretch of the Louse R. from Malberg to Boze Lake was shallow. I had a couple extra pullovers. The rocks were very sneaky in some of the narrows. After Boze, the river is generally deeper and weedier, instead of rocky, but I still had a few spots I had to pullover. Northern Purple Pitcher Plant [paragraph break] Louse River tamarack bog [paragraph break] The next 4 portages to reach Trail Lake were all very straight forward. Some of the landings were very rocky, but easy to find. None of them are well traveled but are in decent condition. This is a pretty area to paddle, lots of tamarack bogs mixed with rocky areas. I started to notice a lot of really stinky scat on the big rocks I paddled past. It smelled like rotten fish and had lots of crayfish bits in it. Otter? Mink? Fisher?
I was tired and dull witted today. The sun and heat was getting to me. I had to be slow and deliberate to make sure I didn't forget anything or injure myself. Glad it was a short mileage day. I camped at the northern site on Trail Lake and had the lake to myself until after dinner when a group of 2 canoes showed up and took the southern site. It was a very hot afternoon! Swimming was a great relief. All types and sizes of flies were very active today. Since I had reached the site at 1pm, I had plenty of time to swim, rest, swim, and rest some more.
While I was setting up dinner, I heard an animal bounding past. Thinking it was just a chipmunk or red squirrel, I glanced up and was shocked to see a mink bounding past about 4 feet in front of me. It bounded from the trees to my right across in front of me, then past the fire grate and into the thick shrubs near the lake. Then it quickly bounded back the way it had come. So cool! I have never seen a mink in the wild! And so close!
Near sunset, I was hanging out on the rocky slope near the water enjoying the evening and watching the sun go down. When I turned to head back to the tent, I startled the mink again, but this time it had a baby with it. They scurried into the thick brushy area between the fire grate and the water where I am sure there was a den. I respected their privacy and quietly slipped off to my tent to let them get out and about to catch some dinner. Now I was wishing I had brought the game camera.
Distance traveled: 5.0 miles Portages: 270 rods Time: 3.5 hours
~Malberg Lake, Frond Lake, Boze Lake, Trail Lake
I had wanted to get up by 5:30 this morning and be on the water by 6:30am. However, I slept until 5:50. I scrambled and managed to get paddling by 6:40. The 3 portages between Trail Lake and Bug Lake were pretty easy to find from this direction. The 1st two had steep climbs to start out, but decent paths. Except the first one has a ravine around the midpoint. It is easier to do in this direction (west to east) because you go down the steep rock face, not up it. Definitely fit for a mountain goat (where is my son when I need him). Tool Lake doesn't seem like a lake, just another part of the river. Make sure you keep track of where you are and turn east on the stream before looking for the portage.
After Bug is when things got...well, LOUSED up! The portage after Bug that takes you into Louse Lake is pretty screwed up by beavers. First, I had a little unmapped portage around a big beaver dam. Then I found the landing for the main portage hidden away. The trail was quite rough, rocky, and muddy. It was thin and overgrown in places. The nicest stretch was alongside a beaver pond because the trail went into a nice open forest area. In places, the trail is slanted sideways, and I was glad it hadn't rained and made it slippery. The portage comes to an end at a BIG beaver dam with a very steep slope on your left side. No more trail so I put the canoe in the water to cross the pond in front of me.
Where's my map?! Oh, crap!!! It had fallen out of my pocket, but where? Feeling really stupid that I had lost the most critical piece of survival equipment I had, I scurried back along the path frantically scanning the brush. About 10 rods before the start of the portage, I found it with a branch caught in part of the map case. It must have caught on the brush and gotten yanked out. Adrenaline still pumping, I swore to myself I would never put a map in my pocket again.
Now strolling back to the canoe, I took time to enjoy the sights and found some little dewberries to eat. Yummy! Once I was reunited with all my gear, I started paddling east to where Louse Lake should open up. I pulled over another small beaver dam and came to a dead end of grand rockiness. Based on notes, I knew there might be a 2nd part to this so I looked for a portage path. Saw something promising, but it came to a dead end. Found another landing which also dead ended. Hmm... Went back over the small beaver dam and started looking for a path near the big beaver dam. Found 2 more possible paths which both dead ended. Now I was getting pretty frustrated. I was tried, chewed by flies, and wondering how I was going to get out of here.
Times like these are when I miss having another person along with whom to troubleshoot and brainstorm. I stopped and reflected on my options. I could keep looking a bit more, I could bushwhack one of the dead end paths, or I could go back to Bug Lake and then head north into Dent and go around that way. Feeling calmer that I had an out if I needed it, I decided to look again. I tried the south side. No portage landing, but I found a reasonable way to bushwhack to Louse Lake. It was only about 15-20 rods and didn't require fighting any large or overly dense sections of trees. It spit me out at the top of yet another beaver dam. I did it!!! I was feeling really good that I had solved the puzzle. I was feeling so much relief that I was only slightly frustrated to see a beautiful portage landing on the north side as I pulled away. Though I was curious where it ended up going, I decided to push on.
The boulder garden portage between Louse Lake and Poe Lake lived up to its reputation. I just took it slow and steady and was glad once again that it had not been raining. In general, the portages east of Bug are much fainter and more overgrown than those west of Bug. This is not a well traveled route and the split off to Dent probably cuts the traffic at least in half.
On Poe, I had the wind at my back and was relaxing so much, I almost forgot to watch for the little portage into Mug. It is just a short walk over a big rock. From Mug to Wine Lake, the portage climbs a LOT. I had to put my legs into low gear to get up some of the slopes after all the other portages I had completed. BTW, I was feeling very proud that I had single portaged everything through the Louse River including the bushwhack. This is a new era for me. Every solo trip needs a green frog buddy [paragraph break] I made it to Wine Lake around 11:00 am and set up camp on the island site. I had a big green frog buddy and the site had beautiful shade for napping on a hot, hot, hot afternoon. Plenty of swimming today again. There were no bugs at the site either. Well, a few flies, but they were too stupid to ever find the open door to the tent. For the 1st time that I can remember in ages, I was able to roll back the screen doors on the tent and not get bitten during the day. I fell asleep after dinner and woke up just in time to close the screens before the dusk squadron of mosquitoes showed up.
Distance traveled: 5.7 miles, Portages: 583 rods, Time: 4.5 hours
~Trail Lake, Tool Lake, Bug Lake, Louse Lake, Poe Lake, Mug Lake, Wine Lake
Layover day today. I forced myself to plan one and to use it. I have a hard time not traveling in a day, but it is good for me...I guess. After a cherry-chocolate smoothie for breakfast, I got up and made a paddling circuit of Wine Lake to see if I had any company. Nope. Empty. The site in the bay south of me was very hard to find. It looks like it never gets used and had small shrubs growing through the fire grate. The site near the portage to Frederick looked like it probably gets the most use out of the three, but was empty on this July 4th. Who says the BWCA is crowded?! I had a 3 campsite lake within a few hours paddle from one of the busiest entry points all to myself for the July 4th weekend.
After a rest back at the campsite, I took lunch and paddled over to explore the blue line and pond that leads toward Mug Lake. Maybe I could see the waterfall on Mug. It was a fun paddle exploring the bog area. It ended at a massively long beaver dam. I crashed through the brush and down a steep hill to Mug. I found where the water should be flowing from the pond to the waterfall, but it was all dried up this year. On my way back out through the bog, I had a chance to photograph the little Rose Pogonia orchids that were everywhere. blooming pitcher plant [paragraph break] Rose Pogonia Orchid [paragraph break] orchids and pitcher plants together [paragraph break] Hung out at the campsite all afternoon, swimming and playing solitaire. I had finished my book a day ago and was missing having reading material. No bugs again today...this site is fabulous! I am ready to be home. I planned the last 2 days to be rather short in case I had run into delays or I had bad wind trying to paddle Sawbill. But if the wind is favorable tomorrow, I will plan to just head out. I have a HUGE craving for the crack tater tots at Trail Center so I might drive there even though it is the wrong direction.
Distance traveled: layover day so just paddled around the lake a couple times
I was eager to get moving today after a rest day yesterday. Smoke has settled this morning and the smell is strong. I left the campsite at 6:05am after snacking on some almonds. Saved my cold soak oatmeal for just before the big portage. The 90 rod portage into Frederick was straight forward. Then there was a little 10 rod portage that wasn't marked on my map that got me into Zenith. Ate my oatmeal and got ready for the 460 rod. I was eager to see if I could single portage the whole thing without a rest break.
I made one mistake. Since my main pack was emptier, I decided to stuff my daypack inside it. Never mess with a known system that works. I started out and the pack was too tall. It kept whacking the seat and making me crazy. So 10 rods in, I quickly stopped to set things back to normal and continued on my way. Made it to the end without another stop! I was close to needing a break, and had told myself if I didn't see evidence of the lake around the next bend then I could take one. But I came around the bend and could see the trees starting to open up and soon after spotted the lake.
The stream out of Lujenida was beautiful. The sun was shining on hundred of dew covered webs hanging in the bog. They looked like silver hammocks. Then I spotted sundew plants! Okay, I admit, I just love bog plants and this trip had been fantastic for them. I had been hoping to see some sundews and I finally did! Oblong-leaved Sundews [paragraph break]
The wind was at my back and that cemented my idea that I should end the trip a day early. I made it to the dock on Sawbill by 10:05am. I was glad I had started the day early because the wind was starting to pick up. The gusts were getting much stronger and even though it would have been at my back, I was glad I didn't risk ending up with big rollers.
Did I end up driving all the way to Grand Marais and up the Gunflint Trail just to eat at Trail Center? Why, yes indeed! I stuffed myself with a juicy BLT and a big order of the crack tater tots. I nibbled on leftover tater tots all the way to Duluth. So yummy!
Conclusion: I really enjoyed single portaging. It was very freeing to only need to take one load across. I never had to worry about unattended gear or blocking a landing. I never had to worry about whether I had what I needed with me in case I got hurt. I liked that my decision to single portage forced me to trim back on what I brought. Fewer things to unpack and repack was nice. I didn't miss anything except I would have liked another book. I brought my watercolor paints but was never in the mood to use them, so next time I think I will exchange them for that 2nd book. The Louse River was a great choice for a route. It was off the beaten track, provided some challenges and some unique experiences for me. I also learned that with single portaging, I can plan some longer miles than I did this trip. Some of my days were definitely too short. But I liked that I planned a trip that had some flexibility and options.
Distance traveled: 9.3 miles Portages: 560 Time: 4.5 hours
~Wine Lake, Frederick Lake, Zenith Lake, Lujenida Lake, Kelso Lake, Sawbill Lake