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

BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog

April 21 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

A Week In January - Annual Winter Trip

by TreeBear
Trip Report

Entry Date: January 08, 2023
Entry Point: Sawbill Lake
Number of Days: 6
Group Size: 4

Trip Introduction:
The week we had looked forward to had come around again: the Week of Winter annual BWCA trip. This tradition is relatively new, last year was our first, but it seems poised to be a trip that continues annually. January is a fascinating time to take a week long BWCA trip both because winter offers such a different perspective on the wilderness and because it takes so long to get anywhere. A slightly longer trip lets us set our eyes on destinations further into the BWCA which is quite nice. The history of this trip goes back to our first winter trips into the BWCA. I winter camped a ton in college, but most of those were drive up, hike a mile or two in, and set up for the weekend. Also, all those were cold camping which really isn't as bad as it sounds. Once the gear is right, cold camping is comfortable until well below zero. The worst in fact is that middle range of 20s-40s where everything has the potential to get super wet in the tent, on the gear, and throughout the wardrobe. Anyways, the first foray into the BWCA in the winter started with the obligatory transition trips. First it was figuring out canoeing and portaging in 7" of snow and then it was figuring out ice breaking with the canoe. Then we took it to a short trip cold camping from South Hegman to Angleworm. Eventually, we moved into the hot tent scene and set up camp at the spot I had always dreamed of spending a night on Watap. The natural progression from there put us on Caribou Lake south of Clearwater for a week-long trip last January. Unfortunately for me, illness hit hard by night two when a strong fever set in. Let me tell you, a hearty fever while outside air temps plunge down into the -20s is a personal experience to be avoided! This year though, I was healthy and ready to enjoy our five nights of January fun in the BWCA. We targeted Wine as our destination and agreed to meet at the Sawbill parking lot. I had the Banff Film Festival to attend as a vendor and would be driving up late after the festival wrapped up. I didn't finish up till almost 11 that night in Duluth so it was a late run up the shore and along the Sawbill trail meaning it was 1:30 before I pulled in to the parking lot. It wasn't long before I was fast asleep in my car, anxiously dreaming of morning.

Day 1 of 6


Sunday, January 08, 2023 I decided to begin work on my own gear before finding the two members of the trip who had arrived the night before. First, I pulled the sled out of my car and began loading it with the Portage North Outfitter 98 I had along. I tucked the few extras like the second set of snowshoes and the cot as well as my camera case into the bottom of the sled. Just as I finished, a low rumble started making its way down the road. Rounding the corner, I immediately recognized Dan-in-the-box's truck. He was not supposed to be joining us until afternoon, but woke up about 3:00 in the cities to make it to Sawbill for our start. I walked down to the landing and found our other two guys. I had brought a Voyageur 3 from work for them to borrow as we started stuffing packs and sorting out gear into various sleds. It was a good twenty minutes before sleds were loaded and granola was being passed around for breakfast. Before we knew it, our group suddenly had grown to five! Where did this dog come from?!? Despite our best attempts at encouraging our new friend Huckleberry to return to Sawbill Outfitters, she seemed dead set on coming along on our adventure. Soon enough though, another camper came around the corner. As chance would have it, he was the uncle of another one of our friends. What are the odds that he would be winter camping the same time and place as us?!? After a few failed attempts, we managed to ditch Huckleberry with him and start off towards Alton. Travel conditions were dreamy with light snow and no slush. We made quick pace all the way to the Kelso River before stopping for a break and a snack. The Kelso River had some deeper snow in spots but still was relatively straightforward. Occasionally, the sun peaked from behind the clouds and cast a dancing light on the treetops. It was easy for the mind to wander back to my fall solo trip along this same stretch of water a couple years ago. How different it looks with trees covered in snow rather than the golden leaves of autumn. I had a magical couple days with beautiful sunrises and an encounter with a mink on that trip. Today, the only wildlife around seemed to be a chickadee or two. There was a small patch of open water near the beaver dam, otherwise good travel conditions continued to the portage. It was at the portage that the adventure truly began. The portage had obviously not seen traffic in awhile, possibly since the fall. A large spruce had dropped on the portage making it even harder to find. Without snowshoes, the snow went up to mid-thigh. Even with snowshoes, the heavy sleds dragged like an anchor through the thick powder. This day would be hard-won. The start of the portage is a quick succession of small ups and downs; this is truly exhausting while trail breaking. Up and down, up and down, and the two of us in the lead were quickly tiring of the trail breaking. At the base of a steep hill, we saw a window of opportunity to our left: a wide-open beaver pond. That seems better than this mess any day! We head out to the beaver pond and are rewarded by 100 yards of clear open surface. On the far side though, the walls close in to dense brush. I scout ahead and decide that one side of the creek is marginally kinder than the other. It still takes quite a bit of bashing and crashing through the alder tangle before we clear through to another small beaver pond. Despite the hard work, there's still no sign of the other half of our group who we haven't seen since Lujenida. Where have they gone? We decide to keep pushing forward since our broken trail can only help them. The next section of brush is closed into a steep canyon with an exposed rock face to the left. There are scattered boulders in the valley and the snow concealed the occasional pitfall. We would have to be cautious. We bashed on ahead through an incredible tangle of alders with sleds catching on brush pretty much continually. Occasionally, one of us would plug into a hole and have to wrestle the snowshoe back out. After clearing our way through the canyon, the valley opened up into another large, brushy woodland. We stopped for a breather before I set off to scout ahead. The valley forked into a "y" and it seemed both ended up in open creek sections eventually. We were looking for the spot the portage crossed the creek, a landmark from the map to help our bearings and the place we planned to jump back on trail. I hiked to the spot where the forest gave way to marshland before backtracking to the sleds. By then, the sound of the voices of the other group members was coming from down the valley. They soon joined us for the final push to the creek. We were a little battered with sore knees and I had a binding-blister going on my achilles. Three out of four group members were walking a little gimpy. It was a grueling end of the first day of the trip. One by one, we trudged on to blast out onto the open beaver pond. We pulled over the beaver dam and out around the corner. This is where we would spend the night. We cleared a space for Little Grumpy's new hot tent (a real beauty he had been waiting nearly a year to receive from its maker.) I gathered firewood, others set up the tent, and before we knew it, we were enjoying a stellar moonrise behind the trees through the smoke rising from our warm tent. A fittingly relaxing evening was the reward for a challenging day.~Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake,


Day 2 of 6


Monday, January 09, 2023 The next morning found us each checking bumps, bruises, and blisters and donning our relatively wet gear from the day before. The daytime temps were too warm to keep gear truly dry. It was a slow pack up before we headed for the portage. We knew we had more than half of the portage still to go and, with the snow depth we observed before, we knew it would be a tiring push. It's a steep climb out of the beaver pond and we quickly realized that we weren't going to be able to break trail with the sleds. One of our group members elected to go on ahead and break trail, but with his narrow modern snowshoes, the responsibility also fell back to me. The blister was tender, but the trail had to be broken. I charged on ahead with my classics (the bindings I had issues with the day before) since the moderns were too narrow to make a sufficient trail for the sleds. There were some daunting ups and downs before one long uphill led to a brushy stretch. After the brushy stretch, it was a long downhill to Zenith. I was glad to see the lake, but I knew that, somewhere far behind me, my crew was working hard to make some progress with the sleds. I turned and headed back to help. After about 10 minutes, I ran into the other trail breaker, still making progress though punching through the big tracks made my the classics. Five minutes after him, I ran into the first sled-puller. "Dan-in-the-box" is big and strong and, despite sore knees at this point in the trip, seemed hardly to notice the sled behind him. He chugged on ahead, now wisely using a walking stick for support. Awhile back from him, I ran into Little Grumpy who, ever the stubborn one, was chugging on with a very heavy sled. We paused and took a snack break together. I wished him well before heading back for one of the other two sleds. I passed the toboggan, figuring I should go for the sled furthest back on the portage. I found it and set off to make whatever progress I could make. It wasn't long before I hit the steep downhill. Of course, the sled jumped trail and overturned about halfway down. That's when I realized that the sled had an open baguette in it! Why is there just a random loaf of bread here? Haha. I had a good chuckle to myself before piling gear back into the sled and continuing off down the trail. I ran into my other trail breaker after another ten minutes or so and sent him back for the final sled. Soon enough, I was on the uphill and even with a walking stick this section required the occasional hands and knees crawl up hill. The sleds were heavy and the snow slick, it was a battle for every foot. I ran into Little Grumpy again part way up the hill. I sent him back to our fourth crew member to help with the final sled while I marched up the hill. I finally reached the down tree which I knew marked the peak. Then it was downhill to Zenith. We all grouped up near the lake for the final, small drop down to the ice where we gathered for lunch. It took over three hours from the beaver pond, but we had finally completed the last leg of the long portage! On Zenith, we worked through the creek. There was a portage before Frederick with open water. We cautiously filled up bottles there and purified them well. There was another open spot to avoid on the Frederick side which took some acrobatics to get snowshoer and sled across. Frederick was a beautiful lake, but it was definitely growing late in the afternoon by the time we reached the portage where I took my turn breaking trail. The first section is steep enough and took some work to find my way through the unbroken trail. Before me stretched this daunting steep section. I can imagine it's tough with a canoe, but with snowshoes and a heavy sled, this was a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Thankfully, we had come prepared. What would follow was the most amusing system for pulling sleds up a hill. At the top was an anchor connected to a tree. One end of the rope would be hooked to the sled the other would be hooked to a person. As a person at the top took out slack, the person with the end of the rope would graciously fall down the hill while the sled went up the hill. We would then set the sled off to the side, the ropes would get switched, a new sled would get hooked up, and we continued this rotation until all sleds were perched on top of the hill. From the top of the Frederick portage, there are some tight turns and a couple steep up and downs before a dramatic fall down the hill to Wine. Tackling this steep downhill in the dark by headlamp, we couldn't help but grimace at the thought of doing this the other direction in a few days' time. We worked our way down the southern shore of Wine Lake looking for a spot with ample firewood. We settled near the SW corner and began the process of stamping out a spot, getting the tent set, and spreading out in search of firewood. I headed north along the eastern shore which proved to be incredibly steep. I did finally spot one back from shore that was dead, down, and dry. It was a good scramble up to retrieve it and saw it free, but I was happy to find good wood to drag back to camp with me. It was satisfying to sit down in a warm tent finally and appreciate the campsite we had earned for ourselves. Now we could enjoy three nights of fishing and exploring.~Zenith Lake, Frederick Lake, Wine Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Zenith Lake, Frederick Lake, Wine Lake,


Day 3 of 6


Tuesday, January 10, 2023 The next day, we allowed ourselves a slight sleep in. The goal for the day was to find a more substantial source of firewood and perhaps catch some fish. I started out on a solo hike to Mug Lake and would keep my eye out for firewood along the shore. Just past the narrows to the island, I found my first slush pocket of the trip. Travel conditions on the lake were still amazing though and I was able to walk to the portage without snowshoes. At the portage, it was obvious that this little back bay was popular with the Moose as deep post-holed tracks ran from the marsh, across the lake, and down the portage. I wondered if I would encounter any of them today. The portage to Mug is a slight rise and then a steep descent to the lake and finishes alongside a beautiful rock face. A trio of otter trails broke up the otherwise untampered snow on Mug Lake. Mug is a pretty little lake that feels like the bowl of a once much deeper body of water. The banks are steep and high with occasional boulder piles and rock faces. I hiked around the corner to the falls, appreciating the expansive ice wall lining the face this time of year. I stopped over onto Poe with thoughts of going as far as Louse for further exploring, but decided against it for the sake of time. On my way eastbound on Wine, it was obvious that the guys were well enamored by their search for fish. I could also tell that their firewood exploration found some success. They had found a nicely down jack pine and cut and split it in my absence. It was a good day.~Wine Lake, Mug Lake, Poe Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Wine Lake, Mug Lake, Poe Lake,


Day 4 of 6


Wednesday, January 11, 2023 The next day was similar to the first. This time we took a group trip over to Mug to enjoy the falls further. I trekked along with the crew and grabbed some firewood I had cut but not hauled on my trip the day prior along the shore of Wine. We spent the evening with more fishing and caught one that we designated for dinner. That night, we ate like kings with a good half fillet a piece and a hearty dinner alongside. Finish that off with ice cream and any thoughts of withering away on this trip vanished completely. This would be our last night on Wine. We contemplated attempting the push back in one go now that the trail was broken, but if past trips had taught us anything it was that all miles take longer than anticipated. ~Wine Lake, Mug Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Wine Lake, Mug Lake,


Day 5 of 6


Thursday, January 12, 2023 We woke up to find it slightly colder than it had been, which was a blessing. The warm air made for weak snow prone to breaking through on the portages. Now that we had broken trail ahead of us, cold temperatures that could keep the packed snow hard was key. The first leg of portaging was the most intimidating. The portage rising out of Wine Lake is a steep ridge which would make us painfully aware of every ounce in the sled. We decided against the snowshoes for the sake of maximum traction. Dan-in-the-box was quick up the hill. Little Grumpy helped tandem push the toboggan up the hill with our fourth and then headed back down to hook back up to his. Between him pulling from the top, me pushing a bit, and pulling my slightly lighter sled, we managed up the hill in no time, a welcome suprise to be sure. Just as Little Grumpy and I reached the final descent to Frederick, an unmistakable rumble started over the treeline, is that a helicopter? We raced down to the ice to catch a glimpse of a helicopter come right over the treeline and it was obviously flying a grid pattern. We know he had to have seen us since my bright orange coat is hard to miss. We anxiously check our packs to make sure no one had accidently pushed SOS on the Spot Gens. It didn't seem like any had. Our next thoughts went to search and rescue. A few of us have background in wilderness first aid and have taken an interest in studying wilderness SAR. We figured if someone was missing, the heli would at least stop to ask us questions, but until then we continued on as usual. On the next pass, he intentionally swung wide around us. We assumed then that it was a wildlife survey, something we confirmed from home later on. The helicopter was out counting Moose. We made good time down Frederick and on to Zenith, taking lunch at the start of the long portage. The warming weather heading into afternoon had quickly increased our rate of post holing, but we were still making good time. We made our beaver pond by late afternoon and had a discussion about spending another night there, but pushed on for Lujenida. Dan-in-the-box broke through the ice near the beaver dam, otherwise the return was mostly uneventful and we set up in the back bay of Lujenida just as the sun was setting.~Wine Lake, Frederick Lake, Zenith Lake, Lujenida Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Wine Lake, Frederick Lake, Zenith Lake, Lujenida Lake,


Day 6 of 6


Friday, January 13, 2023 The final day of the trip was good travel weather. There was a little more snow on the ice than on the way in so it was more effort to clear across Kelso. We ran into a group of skiers heading the other way and had some good discussion there. Alton was blustery as we made the final push back to Sawbill. There was no Huckleberry to great us at the landing as another trip came to a close. It was a marvelous adventure and so refreshing to be healthy for a trip like this as I seem to have gotten sick in time for a number of fun trips this past year. As we packed our cars, the conversation quickly turned to next year and the places we dream of seeing on another week in January.~Lujenida Lake, Kelso Lake, Alton Lake, Sawbill Lake

 

Lakes Traveled:   Lujenida Lake, Kelso Lake, Alton Lake, Sawbill Lake,

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