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BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

October 04 2023

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

Spring Thaw Cherokee Loop

by Makwa90
Trip Report

Entry Date: May 21, 2022
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 3

Trip Introduction:
We were not sure this trip was going to happen due to the late ice out on Sawbill Lake! The ice officially was out a week before our entry date, but the resulting high water levels from the rapid snow melt made us a tad nervous. Nevertheless, we made the trek up Sawbill Trail and found ourselves on the edge of the wilderness once more. This trip will be the first time I’ve paddled a solo canoe for multiple days (with my parents taking our tandem boat). It’ll be a good preparation for my first solo trip in September! The plan for this trip: a short 4 night loop through Cherokee to Frost Lake then over to the Temperances and out Burnt and Smoke back to Sawbill.

Part 1 of 5


Saturday, May 21, 2022 Our first morning dawned dry with a bit of a breeze coming out of the north. A headwind of course! We loaded up Smoky Gold (out retired outfitter tandem canoe) and picked up my solo and headed to the landing nice and early as we had a fairly long paddle ahead of us. After a little experimenting with weight placement in my craft I felt comfortable and ready to go. The water was over the edge of the timber retaining walls at the landing! The warblers came out to serenade us from the cedar lined shores as we paddled towards the boundary island. We were in!

The hills are bare of leaves with the willow flowers and Aspen catkins the only signs of spring. My arms were barking but I slowly got the hang of paddling my craft. It’s slow going that’s for sure, but mom and dad eased their pace so that I could keep up. We passed rocky islands, fishing mergansers, and soaring eagles on our way to the first portage. We had to do the dreaded double portage method due to our added vessel and extra food and layers of clothes. Luckily we are not in a hurry to find a site and the only people we’ve seen were headed back in.

Lots of beaver activity down Ada Creek! Fresh beaver chewed sticks lined the boggy shores. We had a quick snack at the start of Cherokee Creek on our way to our destination for the night: Cherokee Lake. It was good to take a short breather after that portage. The downside of coming out this early in the year is the accumulated winter tree debris across the trail. There were several large tree trunks to step over! As warned, the portages were very muddy and had standing water in sections. I’m definitely glad I chose to wear my xtra tuff boots as the water definitely would have gone over the waterproofing in my hiking shoes.

The water on Cherokee Creek was glass smooth as we glided under tall rock outcrops drooping with lichen. We turned into the lake and nearly paddled the whole length before settling on a peninsula site on the east shore with a dense canopy of large white cedar trees. Immediately upon landing, a loon wailed in the distance: a sign that we were home! The camp kitchen was spacious with excellent seating options and the camp area was spacious and open with an understory of Canada Yew. Cedar scent wafted through the air… mmm!

Our entertainment for the night was watching a pair of loons bathe loudly off our point. Their white bellies glowing as they flipped upside down and flapped their wings madly. Dinner was delicious: Moroccan spiced couscous with chicken, dehydrated sweet potatoes, and chick peas. We kindled an evening fire from a stack of wood that someone left behind in a nice neat pile (birchbark and all). There’s plenty of downed branches from the winter ice storms to scavenge too. Light sprinkles came late and we decided to call it a night.

An odd thing happened today: while it’s normal to find maybe one thing that a paddler has forgotten at a portage during a trip, we found four. Four items on four consecutive portages. A Gerber multi-tool, a pair of leather boots (and socks), a bucket hat, and a pair of brand new crocs. Weird! ~Sawbill Lake, Ada Lake, Skoop Lake, Cherokee Lake

 



Part 2 of 5


Sunday, May 22, 2022 The rain kept falling through the night but only enough to wet the tent fly. Chilly but not as cold as last night: 36 degrees. The loons were calling wildly and woke me up several times during the night. A cloudy day again, but the wind is still fairly calm. We kindled a damp campfire as we sipped our morning coffee and ate our oatmeal. We shoved off by 9:00 on our way up to Frost Lake.

We skirted the sheltered sides of the islands to stay out of what chop was out there. I managed fairly well, but sometimes a gust would come up and spin me off course. As I hoisted the canoe on my shoulders to start the Gordon Lake portage, I heard little “tinking” noises above. Suddenly my Dad exclaimed, “I think it’s snowing!” Sure enough, little sleet pellets started rolling off the sides of the canoe! We glided under the beautiful cliffs of Gordon Lake marveling at how we far away we could hear all the little streams entering the lake. We pulled up to the Unload Lake and I massaged my shoulders. Yup, things are a little sore from yesterday. Though long, the portage was scenic with huge cliffs with hanging moss and lichen. Blue Bead Lily, Canada Mayflower, and ferns were just unfurling while the Gooseberries were just starting to bloom. We rounded a corner near a tall rock face and lo and behold: a pile of snow!

This more remote portage ends amongst a beautiful stand of cedars at a beautiful beaver lake before emptying out into Frost Lake. We met another paddler heading back in and mentioned that he had lost a pair of crocs on a portage. What are the chances that we would run into him! We promptly returned his footwear to him and he thanked us profusely! We scooted our way over the beaver dam and we were in Frost Lake! Our destination is a sand beach site on the west side of the lake. We battled a head wind to get over there to an empty and sheltered campsite! We set up camp and had a hot lunch before heading back out on a day paddle down the Frost River.

The river gurgled loudly at its exit point on the lake and we heard it constantly on our long hilly portage. Lots of down trees to step over and crouch under. Back in the boat, the Frost River meanders lazily amongst Leatherleaf flats and we marveled at the Water Lily leaves just emerging from the mucky riverbed. We were able to float through a portage into Octopus Lake (maybe one of my favorite little lakes of the trip). Scraggly Jack Pine and Black Spruce lined the rocky shores and every bay seemed to host a pair of mergansers. At a portage around a set of rapids we admired the lime green moss and pale corydalis plants just coming up. We admired the beautiful waterway dreaming of the day when we can complete the route. Spring seems like the perfect time to do it with the higher water levels. We were able to paddle over a beaver dam (with much joyful whooping and hollering).

Once back at camp we immediately made some warm coffee. Even though the sun was peeking out, we were constantly taking off and putting back on layers with every passing cloud. Then it started snowing again! We had a gourmet spaghetti squash Thai peanut noodle dish complete with fresh broccoli and green onions. Yum! This was why the food bags were so heavy, huh? We had a lovely evening fire as the sun set and the lake turned to glass. We listed to whistling ducks, spring peepers, and loud beavers slapping their tails in the night.

~Cherokee Lake, Gordon Lake, Unload Lake, Frost Lake

 



Part 3 of 5


Monday, May 23, 2022 It was cold last night, so I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. The temperature was right at 32 degrees but it was perfectly calm and sunny!! We ate breakfast around a much needed morning fire and watched spotted sandpipers walk along our beach. We packed up camp and paddled out to the large rock sitting mysteriously in the middle of the lake. It just seems unnaturally placed right there! We dragged our boats back up the beaver dam into Unload Lake and headed back to Gordon walking through the only slightly smaller pile of snow. With the sun out I actually took off my long underwear layer that I had practically been living in! We had to wait awhile to get on the portage to Cherokee due to 4 canoes coming through…rather noisily. I swear they hit their boats on every rock there was and threw their paddles down at the shore. I could almost feel our retired rental canoe shudder at the memory of harsh abuse. We passed the jerky between us and watched some Magnolia warblers on the shoreline until all was clear.

Onwards into the wind! Cherokee had some good chop on it from the south east wind. The opposite direction it was blowing from the first day and it’s still a headwind!! I almost didn’t get around the point to a sheltered island. It felt like I was in a standstill. It’s hard to be the motor and the steerer at once. I finally rounded the point but was then buffered by ricochet waves from a nearby cliff so I was rocking and rolling for a bit. The paddle on the west side of the islands was much better and we made our way down the shore towards a campsite by the Sitka Lake portage for lunch.

We were tempted to stay here for the night because of the excellent views but we decided we needed to push on to our destination lake (n. Or s. Temperance). And so we found ourselves climbing a set of stairs up the portage. This made hauling everything up to flatter ground a bit awkward but we got her done. Luckily no one else came by or it would have been a tight squeeze. This portage was probably the hardest of the trip with lots of climbs. We fought for toe holds up a boulder with the canoe balanced precariously atop my shoulders. The relief at the end was short lived as there was only a short paddle across a tiny lake before the next 100 rod portage.

The Misquah Hills came into view and the northern portion of North Temperance Lake was beautiful. We coasted with the wind hoping the one site on the island would be free, but our hearts sank as we saw camp set up. Time for the long paddle back south into the wind. The other two sites did not seem very nice so we ventured over to South Temperance. Unfortunately all the available sites on this lake are exposed to the chilly wind, but we did find an open on in a northwest bay. We were happy to call it home, but the wind caused us to put all our layers back on.

This site features a tricky landing and minimal tent pads, but luckily my solo tent can be set up practically anywhere and I tucked in next to the shore in a quiet frog filled bay. We pressed some coffee with our aero press and gathered firewood for the night. The wind stayed with us through dinner though it calmed down by evening. More slapping beavers, loons, and plenty of spring peepers. The skies cleared out and we had a spectacular view of the Milky Way. The Little Dipper was framed perfectly in the clearing above our site. The stars twinkled brightly on the now perfectly calm water. ~Frost Lake, Unload Lake, Gordon Lake, Cherokee Lake, Sitka Lake, North Temperance Lake, South Temperance Lake

 



Part 4 of 5


Tuesday, May 24th Another calm but cold morning. 32 degrees! I peeled myself out of my tent to get the coffee water boiling. The sun is just peeking over the trees but our site is not quite situated to take advantage of the morning sun. We ate breakfast at the very tip of our peninsula trying to bask in the sunlight watching trumpeter swans fly overhead. We hit the water and headed off in the direction of the loud rumbling of water on the far shore: the Temperance River. The aspens are dropping their fluffy white catkins and the lake was festooned with their cottony seeds. Our first portage of the day is a long one: 240 rods. But it followed the raging white water of the river through most of it so it was very scenic. Our rubber boots came in handy as sections were very muddy and flooded. You could tell by the hung up debris that we’d have been in some trouble trying to portage this last week. Moose tracks and scat littered the trail and I swear I saw fresh prints on our second trip to get the remaining packs.

We had some trouble locating the next portage until we realized that the portage landing was right at the mouth of a treacherous looking section of whitewater. So we slowly and daintily scooted next to the shore holding on to the vegetation until we pulled ashore next to the torrent. The trail skirted the very edge of the rapids and in fact the water actually flowed through the portage. Some spots were deeper than our boots! I had to crouch walk the canoe under a downed tree (after clunking into it blindly). Finally we were on Weird Lake.

We portaged around another set of beautiful rapids marveling at the power of the spring melt. We decided to pull over for lunch at a (rather boggy) campsite and ate our tuna salad wraps with content in the sunshine. The wind picked up a little bit which was a little tiresome on this long narrow stretch of lakes leading into Kelly lake. We rounded a corner and spotted a moose on the Leatherleaf edge of the channel. It tromped off quietly with a look of disgust, but we were giddy. Finally, a moose spotting in the BWCA!!

We scanned the shores for decent campsite from here towards Burnt Lake but none looked terribly inviting. We’ve lost the rugged rocky shores and now coasted past marshy edges and lowlands. The portage over to Burnt did all of us in and we were craving a hit of caffeine. The first two sites on Burnt were occupied and the next was pretty trashy. So onwards we pushed to look at the last two (luckily with the wind at our back). We settled on one on the northeast side of the lake featuring a rocky outcrop and a boulders opening.

We peeled off our layers…it’s now 70 degrees! Evening cappuccinos were made and the hammocks were hung for some lounge time. Had a nice fire with a perfect view of the sunset…the first one of the trip! Sipped on the last of the scotch and as the stars peeled out, the spring peepers started up once more. What a tiring, adventurous, and beautiful last full day in the boundary waters!~South Temperance Lake, Vern Lake, Temperance River Lake, Weird Lake, Jack Lake, Kelly Lake, Burnt Lake

 



Part 5 of 5


Wednesday, May 25th When we awoke the next morning, the skies were a gloomy grey, but the lake was still glass calm. We made no rush of packing camp and we slept in a bit thanks to our half day paddle out today. We sipped our coffee watching ducks constantly fly in and out of our bay. We whipped up our gourmet chocolate chip pancakes with dried fruit on the side and decided we had enough coffee left for a second round…what a treat! Just as we finished our tasty breakfast, an ever so slight spit of rain started falling. Time to pack up camp. The wind started picking up as we shoved off and it was a bit of a battle turning out of our bay and into the portage bay, but the. We just coasted our way into the shore. We played leap frog with another group also headed out and by the time we shoved off the rocky shore of Smoke Lake it was raining hard enough to don the rain jackets which we did while floating in a calm bay. As we nosed up to the boardwalk planks leading into a deep mucky back bay, another group showed up with their portable speakers loudly playing music and blocking access to our gear with their canoes when we returned on our second trip across the portage. Not to mention that my Mom and I nearly died of second hand smoke inhalation from hiking behind them on the portage.

Luckily, once we sipped our paddles into Sawbill Lake, the peace returned and all was quite once more. Sawbill was almost dead calm with the strong east wind blocked by the narrow north/south channel of the lake. The rain continued and at the border island a pair of loons floated by bidding us farewell. They preened themselves in circles floating on their sides taking advantage of the rain shower. Fresh clothes and a warm shower awaits us back at the outfitter. Another successful trip! ~Burnt Lake, Smoke Lake, Sawbill Lake

 

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

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