Boundary Waters Trip Reports, Blog, BWCA, BWCAW, Quetico Park

BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

June 23 2024

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: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Latitude: 47.8699
Longitude: -90.8858
Sawbill Lake - 38

Turtle Tales

by straighthairedcurly
Trip Report

Entry Date: June 15, 2021
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (38)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 4

Trip Introduction:
This was a break-in trip for my son, husband, and me in order to get in shape for longer, harder trips later in the summer. My son's girlfriend also came along and this trip was a step up in difficulty from her intro trip last summer, but she was game for it.

Day 1 of 4

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

We camped at the Sawbill Campground last night so we could get a sort of speedy start this morning. By the time we had dropped our gear at the landing, deposited the car in the public parking lot, and made a stop at the little store to get some extra batteries, it was 9am and apparently the prime time for launching. The landing was busy, busy with people arriving and leaving. We left after 2 other groups, but passed them halfway up the lake. Since my husband and I paddle a bit faster than my son and girlfriend, Stew started trolling. Bam! Caught a very cute walleye that would have been the perfect size for Stew's dinner (the rest of us don't eat fish much). However, we were going all the way to Cherokee, so he let it go on its merry way. As we turned east near the north end of Sawbill, we passed a 3rd group. We singled portaged the first flat/easy portage so we never saw any of the other groups again. The 2nd portage was longer than 76 rods because we had to get out at a low water landing. The portage followed the right side of the creek for about 30 rods before cutting across land.

Since enough of us had growling stomachs, we had a floating lunch. Stew whined, but there was no good shore lunch spot and we knew too many people were behind us for us to eat at a portage landing.

The next portage was a bit challenging to find because we thought it should be right before the little creek. Turns out you have to paddle along the winding creek . There were multiple spots you could get out and start portaging along the rocky, muddy creek shore. But it was also possible to wade through the creek for quite a long way, which significantly shortened the portage.

Pink Lady's Slipper [paragraph break]

We stopped at the end of the portage to patch Joey and Morgan's paddling blisters. I resisted saying "I told you so" regarding all the days they had chosen to not go paddling before the trip.

The last portage of the day was 180 rods and listed as an L7. We felt it was much easier than that due to good footing and nice boardwalks over marshy areas. Morgan hit her physical limit and only carried the pack halfway, but her spirits remained high. This was planned to be a more physical trip than she had taken before.

The paddle through Cherokee Creek was delightful. We saw 2 peregrine falcons and a beaver as well as listened to a pileated woodpecker. Joey likes to pick out the campsites and has a good instinct. We took site 899 on the east shore point soon after we exited the creek. It had good swimming and a nice tent site up the slope a bit. Terrible bear rope trees, but that would be a theme for the whole trip.

We got to the site around 1:45 and had a relaxing afternoon after setting up camp including a bit of fishing. We devoured chicken noodle soup with dumplings for dinner. As we settled on the great rocky point to eat our key lime cookies for dessert, Stew spotted a rock moving on the rocky point parallel to us. Then he realized it was a HUGE snapping turtle. It lumbered over the rocky point and started down the steep rock face toward the water. We were sure it would slip or tumble at some point. But it was as sure-footed as a mountain goat. It slid into the water silently and without even a ripple! A few minutes later, its head popped up under a cedar tree hanging over the water right by where we were sitting. Where is the camera when you need one?! We got to watch it "walking" the lake bottom across in front of us. It would come up for air every 20 feet or so, pause, then continue. It appeared to be hunting. It went out to the end of the point, then turned and swam back across the bay continuing to pop up for air. The turtle exited the water in the same location it had entered and climbed the steep rock face. It stopped to sun periodically in the low sun. It clambered over the top, then did an about face, came back over, and went down an even steeper face to slip silently into the lake again. Little did we know that this would just be the beginning of our turtle encounters this trip.

Path of the turtle

As Joey and Morgan went down to the water to gather their dried trail clothes, Joey disturbed a big spider. It scurried toward the water and Joey thought it was going to walk on the surface, but instead it dove! It had a pocket of air around its head and sat on the bottom just a foot or so off shore.

This was a beautiful weather day with light winds and sunny skies.

Travel time: 4.5 hours, Distance: 8.1 miles, Portages: 450 rods

~Sawbill Lake, Ada Lake, Skoop Lake, Cherokee Lake


Day 2 of 4

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Last night we discussed whether we wanted to continue our planned loop or whether the group wanted to basecamp and do day trips. Everyone agreed that the loop was their choice. However, it was hard to get everyone moving in the morning. Stew and Joey were very sore and I had a tight left thigh muscle that needed some serious warming up and stretching.

I made blueberry pancakes and bacon for breakfast and we slid the boats into the water at 10:45 am. As you may remember from previous trip reports, getting teenagers moving in the morning is typically a huge challenge. The first portage was 140 rods to Sitka and was rated L10 on the Voyager map. It was a bit of a mountain goat portage, but the footing on the flat sections was good. There were numerous steep climbs and one rock face I had to clamber up on my hands and knees. Stew found a few places with narrow trees to bridge the canoe and take a breather. Joey admitted he was considering setting down the canoe at one point, but decided not to "out of spite" for the portage. That's my boy! I trained him well. Congratulations to Morgan for successfully completing her first L10 portage!

The 2nd portage was much easier and we didn't feel it lived up to its L8 rating. There was good footing, some rocky sections, but no rock hopping required, and there was not much elevation change. Some mud, but nothing deep. Of course, it has been dry, so it might be worse in wetter times. All the North Temperance sites were taken so we continued to South Temperance with our fingers crossed. That portage was very quick. At the landing on S. Temperance, Joey had warned a party of travelers that N. Temperance was full. They immediately turned around and went to grab an open site they had passed earlier. We were worried there wouldn't be any sites left now, but Joey said he couldn't in good conscience have let them think there were open sites to the north. Fortunately, we arrived in time to grab the last open site (#909 right around the corner to the west of the portage) at 1:00pm.

It is a nice site with a long rocky slope, good swimming, lots of June wild flowers, and some resident frogs in a little wetland area. It was another hot, sunny day so we all swam and rested away the afternoon. As I started cooking dinner, we saw a canoe round the corner from the portage paddling hard at 6:30pm. They paused as they saw us, and Stew mentioned it looked like they were trying to find a site. When they paddled by, we mentioned if the next site was full they were welcome to stay with us (we knew the other 2 sites were full). They returned pretty quickly and took us up on our offer. Nice young women, college friends, who also live in Roseville like us.

Wood Nymph flowers (One-flowered pyrola) [paragraph break]

Since this site had abundant dry wood, we made pizza for dinner and fruit cobbler for dessert. Yummy! But a long night of cooking. We exchanged lots of stories with our site guests. Suddenly we noticed a HUGE painted turtle crawling on the shore near dusk, but it didn't stick around and quickly swam off. Two days in a row with turtle action.

Birch Conks [paragraph break] Travel time: 2.25 hours, Distance: 4.8 miles, Portages: 304 rods,

~Cherokee Lake, Sitka Lake, North Temperance Lake, South Temperance Lake


Day 3 of 4

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Up early today and on the water by 9 or 9:30 after a breakfast of biscuits and gravy. The first portage was the long one for the day (225 rods), but we single portaged it. Morgan and I each took one rest break, her with a pack on a rock and me with the canoe bridged in some trees. Much of the path was flat so I could trot or fast walk. The next portage had a rougher, boulder strewn landing at the start, but was okay after that. Just rockier than the 1st portage. The 3rd portage was super short and made a nice lunch spot even though it was only 11am. Joey really burns through the calories! This portage was super crowded with day trippers and overnight folks passing through, but there were rock slopes overlooking the creek that kept us out of everyone's way.

As we came out of the narrows leading to Jack Lake, we noticed a canoe well ahead of us had stopped and put their hands up to signal us to stop. We floated quietly trying to figure out what they were watching. Then we floated around the corner and spotted the momma moose with 2 calves feeding in the shallows by shore. They were munching away close to a campsite, but those people had no idea. We contentedly watched for quite awhile, especially since these were the 1st moose Morgan had ever seen. We were all thrilled, but her most of all!

As we paddled on toward the 72 rod portage at the south end of Jack Lake, Morgan's back started to have spasms. I gave her some ibuprofen and magnesium. Then I rubbed some Biofreeze on it. She said the "Biofreeze feels like mint tastes." On the portage, we had her just walk and Joey doubled back for her pack. We decided to camp asap so when the site right after the portage was open, we took it. Kind of a crummy site without much shade on this hot afternoon. We set up the tent without the fly or stakes. Then we just moved it around to find the shadiest spots as the sun moved across the sky.

White Admiral butterfly [paragraph break]

There was a nice path over to a nearby creek that was good for swimming...until Joey got a leech on his back. I took Stew out fishing but it was very shallow. As we started prepping dinner, Morgan suddenly shrieked, "A turtle! A baby turtle!" Sure enough there were 2 baby turtles in a hollow spot in the dirt with a hole just big enough for them to poke up their little faces. Then as our mac and cheese noodles finished cooking, a female painted turtle strolled out of the lake and into the middle of our campsite. She proceeded to dig a nest and lay her eggs over the course of 60+ minutes. We sat mesmerized, afraid to move and scare her off in the midst of her labors. We managed to eat and clean up without crossing the campsite. Bt now the sun was getting low and we needed to get things picked up. Fortunately, she was unconcerned by our slow careful movements around the campsite. The turtle watching has been AMAZING this trip! Baby turtle

Painted turtle laying eggs [paragraph break]

After dark, I got up to see if the baby turtles were digging out to make a break for it, but I didn't get very far when I noticed another painted turtle digging a nest. By the time we got up in the morning there were no fewer than 6 nests dug all over our campsite. It was definitely an ideal nesting area for them! BTW, the babies were still in place in the morning. Not sure what their deal was.

Wild Iris [paragraph break]

Travel time: 3.5 hours, Distance: 4.5 miles, Portages: 364 rods,

~South Temperance Lake, Weird Lake, Jack Lake, Kelly Lake 


Day 4 of 4

Friday, June 18, 2021

We were concerned about Morgan's back. It was still pretty tender and sore. Fortunately, she was mobile, but wouldn't be able to carry anything and paddling was only marginally possible with lots of breaks to rest. Even as we prepared to leave around 8 am, the wind was noticeably strong out of the west (and we were in a narrow sheltered area.

So new plan. Stew and I would book it to the Sawbill parking lot as planned. We could move fast and handle any wind. Joey and Morgan would exit at Baker Lake since that had very short portages and would not require paddling into the wind since they were primarily paddling south. Then Stew and I would come pick them up at the Baker Lake landing. The planned rendezvous time was noon. We redivided some gear to make sure everyone had what they needed if something went awry with the plan. Since Stew and I had the riskier route, we took the SPOT. They were under orders to contact Morgan's mom if we didn't show up at the expected time, so she could see where we were on the tracking app. Stew and I pulled away from the campsite at 8:20am while they finished packing the last few items.

Wow, wind started really blowing! It was much stronger and gustier than had been predicted. Stew and I cruised the 240 rod portage into Burnt in 19 minutes flat. Yikes! Wind coming strongly out of the W and NW. Good size rollers. We had to pound straight into them before we were able to start using some land features for protection or do some wind ferrying. The next portage into Smoke went faster than our usual 10 rods per minute pace as well. When I got to the landing on Smoke, I was prepared to fight the wind to get the canoe off my shoulders and safely into the water, but not prepared enough. A big gust hit me and plucked the canoe up off my shoulders. I clung to the gunwales, but then it started to take my feet off the ground! I quickly spun the bow to the left and forced it down into a moss patch. I braced both feet in a wide stance and held on tight until the gust subsided. Then I quickly stood back up fully, flipped the boat down, and slid it into the water before the next gust could hit. Even without the canoe, the gusts were trying to knock me off my feet! Glad I was able to keep the canoe safe since we had borrowed it from a friend.

Smoke Lake was tough and we were glad we're strong, experienced paddlers. We had big rollers from the north bay and big rollers from the west bay. It was a chaotic mess of rollers colliding with each other and us. We had to pound really hard to make any headway. We finally got to the slight shelter of a small point, but were still getting hit when the gusts would shift from the W to the N. We decided to wind ferry to the north shore of the west bay. That helped a bit. We were worried about what we would find when we reached Sawbill.

Fortunately, we were able to battle straight across to the west shore of Sawbill where we found some calm. Our arms were pretty lactic upon arrival. We stayed on that shore as long as possible, wind ferrying across the bay that leads to Alton Lake. Then we turned and rode the ever increasing rollers across to the landing dock. Got there at 11:20, completely spent.

The landing was full of families waiting forlornly to see if conditions would improve enough for them to use their entry permit. One poor father was trying to take his teenage daughter on her first trip. They had checked weather reports and nothing like these winds had been in the forecast. As we chatted, his Kevlar canoe started skittering across the gravel area.

We quickly loaded up the car and drove to Baker Lake with tree branches falling on the road in front of us. Joey and Morgan were ready and waiting with their own adventure tales. First, they had come across a massive snapping turtle laying eggs in the middle of the 3 rod portage. This meant they had seen turtles 4 out of 4 days.

They also spotted an otter in some shallow water. It stood/sat straight up to watch them. On the last portage, they ad libbed because they didn't find a landing where the map showed it. They had to wade the stream before they found a take out. At the end of that portage, they had a nasty surprise. Someone had abandoned a bunch of bathroom supplies including a pink toilet seat, a bunch of soiled toilet paper, and a bag of rotting food! They wanted to carry it out, but decided it was a biohazard and they didn't have the right equipment to do it safely.

We all got changed and started for home. The winds were so strong and gusty, we had to keep stopping to adjust and tighten the canoe ropes. We stopped at the Rustic Inn for pie and then in Duluth for Chinese food.

Bunchberry False Lily-of-the-Valley

[paragraph break] This trip I kept a list of flora/fauna we saw. The flowers were especially spectacular this trip. List of blooming flowers seen: Wild Iris, Spotted Coralroot, Pink Lady's Slipper, Bunchberry, False Lily-of-the-Valley, Prickly Wild Rose, Labrador Tea, Bullhead Lily, One-flowered Pyrola (Wood Nymph), other multi-flowered pyrolas, Raspberry, Columbine, Sarsparilla, Clintonia, Twin Flower

What a wonderful trip with wonderful people!

Travel time: 3 hours (Stew and Kris), Distance: 6.7 miles (S/K), 3.7 miles (Joey/Morgan), Portages: 408 rods (S/K), 39 rods (J/M)

~Kelly Lake, Burnt Lake, Smoke Lake, Sawbill Lake (Kris/Stew)

--Kelly Lake, Peterson Lake, Baker Lake (Joey/Morgan)


Lakes Traveled:   Kelly Lake, Burnt Lake, Smoke Lake, Sawbill Lake,

Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports
Trip Reports