BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 22 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
August 04, 2023
Number of Days:
I left Central Ohio around 7:30 am to begin the trip north. Based upon some advice on this forum, I avoided going through Chicago by heading west on 74 out of Indianapolis and picking up 39 in Bloomington, IL. There was far less traffic and it was a pleasant drive. I picked up my nephew Ryan at the airport in Madison, WI around 4:00pm and we headed to the Holiday Inn Express near Chippawa Falls. We ate at a cool little place called the Sheeley House Saloon. I highly recommend it if you are in the area.
We did not have to be in a rush today. We woke, showered, and grabbed breakfast at the hotel. We were on the road around 9:00. Once in Minnesota, we stopped at Gooseberry Falls State Park to kill some time. It was very popular but worth the stop. We made our way to Tofte and ate lunch at the Bluefin Bay resort. The walleye sandwich was fantastic.
We made our way up the Sawbill Trail and checked in with Sawbill Canoe Outfitters. We received our permit but were told we had to come back between 7:00 and 9:00 pm to pick up our pack and other gear. I was hoping to get the pack so we could repack. We asked the individual checking us in about water levels on the Louse River. The only thing he could tell us was that water levels were below average, but not as low as the historic lows they had two years ago.
We found our campsite at the National Forest campground and got set up for the night. We explored some of the trails down to the lake and stopped in the camp store. We were there to pick up our pack at 7:00. This individual had much more helpful information about the route. We took the pack back to the site and went back into town for dinner. We were planning to stop at the Coco Cafe, but they were closing as we arrived. We went back to the Bluefin and the restaurant was packed. We sat at the bar and ate.
We started back up the Sawbill trail. On the trip back, a moose walked out of the trees and started walking up the road in front of us. Eventually, it crossed to the other side. We were back at the campsite around 10:00 and went to bed.
We woke, ate breakfast, repacked our bags, and made our way to the entry point on Sawbill. I stopped by the outfitter to drop off my car keys for them to hold. It was a beautiful day and the water was calm. We paddled over to the portage from Sawbill to Alton. For most of the portages, I carried the gear pack, Ryan carried the food pack and would go back for the canoe. You know you are getting old when the next generation voluntarily starts doing the extra work.
We saw one group heading out of Alton. As we paddled south toward the portage to Beth Lake, I noticed that the campsites on the west shore of Alton were occupied. The portage to Beth has a bit of an incline out of Alton. We met a group of six women portaging out after staying on Beth.
We paddled across Beth to the portage to Grace Lake. It looked like half the campsites on Beth were occupied. The portage to Grace is a long portage at 287 rods (4,736 feet). I was told that this portage is where people start to thin out. On the Grace side of the portage, we met a family coming from Pheobe. It was a mother, father, and a preteen girl. They had just left the site we were targeting on Pheobe and said the lake was empty. They pointed out some areas of concern on the Pheobe River on our map.
We did not see any occupied campsites on the paddle across Grace. After checking in a couple of the wrong bays, we found the short portage to the Pheobe River. In addition to the marked portages along the river, there was a boulder field to contend with. We were able to line the canoe through the field without removing the packs from the canoe.
At the end of one of the portages, we noticed a man-made structure under the water. It was perfectly square set of logs filled with rocks.
The Pheobe River opened into Pheobe Lake, and we targeted the campsite on the north shore of the lake. This site was nearest to the river. The landing for the site was not obvious and we paddled past it. It is basically just a path up a short incline to the campsite. The campsite sits back among the trees and is not visible from the lake.
The site is a big site with plenty of space for tents. The downsides are the landing and the lack of views of the lake. We filtered water and broke out the lunch of foil packed barbecue beef with dehydrated cheese and dehydrated Pico de Gallo. We were both getting a little hangry. Once we ate, we felt much better and set up camp. We spent the afternoon reading and talking.
We heard one other group on the lake, but we could not see them. I believe they were on one of the island campsites on the southern portion of the lake. We saw a group of two canoes come into the lake from the western portion of the Pheobe River. They paddled south toward the campsites on the south end of the lake.
Dinner was "Thanksgiving feast". It was stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, instant gravy and foil packed chicken. Ryan cut some wood and started a fire. The bugs came out around dusk, and we went to bed.
We traveled about 7.5 miles today.
We woke and had a breakfast of bacon and eggs. We packed up camp and started paddling west along the Pheobe River. Where the river narrows just before entering Knight Lake, the water was low, and a boulder field was exposed. We got out of the canoe and lined it through the boulders.
The crossing of Knight was uneventful, and we were soon back on the river. There is a large bend in the river west of Knight where Welp Creek enters the river. We ran into another boulder field in this area and lined the canoe through the field. There was a 144-rod portage from the river to Hazel Lake. It was a typical portage.
We crossed Hazel, noted that both campsites were empty, and found the portage out of Hazel back to the Pheobe River. There were three portages along the river around obstacles like boulders, low water, waterfalls, and beaver dams. The river had sections of lily pads and tall grass. It is a very pretty paddle.
We were soon on the 99-rod portage from the Phoebe River to Lake Polly. We stopped on the Polly end of the portage for a lunch of PB&J bagels and beef jerky.
We paddled the narrow, eastern bay of Polly up to the north shore of the lake. We went between several island and into a bay on the north end where a series of three portages leads to Lake Koma. It was at the first portage that we saw our first people of the day. A group of three young men and their fishing gear were coming south out of Koma.
The First two portages come out on very small ponds. We would reload the canoe, paddle a hundred feet, and get out for the next portage. They were not difficult, but the loading and unloading was annoying. The last portage came out on a bay in Koma. We began to paddle and soon came across a beaver dam. We were able to lift the canoe over the dam without unloading. There was a solo, female paddler lifting her canoe over the dam heading south at the same time.
We paddled halfway up Koma to a campsite on a peninsula on the western shore. The lake only appeared to be four or five feet deep in most parts. The campsite was our favorite of the trip. It had a nice landing where large flat rocks protruded into the lake. The fire grate was near the lake with very nice views. I was able to set my hammock up between trees near the shore. I did not need to put up the rain tarp.
Once camp was set up, we talked a bit and planned for the next day. It was not an easy day today and we knew tomorrow would be harder. We would be going into one of the more remote parts of the Boundary Waters. We snacked on freeze dried cookie crumbles. They were pretty good.
We had a dinner of Zatarain's Jambalaya rice with foil packed chicken. It is one of our standard meals. Desert was a freeze-dried strawberry cheesecake that was rehydrated using cold water. I would definitely get that again.
Around dinner, we saw three canoes cross the lake from north to south. They would be the last people we would see for several days. We had a small fire in the evening but when the bugs came out at dusk, we went to bed.
We traveled around 10 miles today.
We woke to a calm, beautiful day. Breakfast was a breakfast scramble backpacking meal. It was pretty good. We got packed up and headed north to the portage to Malburg. It was a short, easy portage.
We made our way up the lake to the point where a river leads east to Frond Lake. We had a difficult time finding the portage in the low water. It was a little upstream, but the canoe had to be lined through some rocks to get there. Once on the narrow river, we encountered boulder fields. It is a pretty paddle through the narrow area with cliffs on both sides. With a little work, we made it through the fields and on to Frond.
Once on Frond, it was an easy paddle to the portage to the unnamed pond. That portage was easy and we were quickly across the pond to the portage to Boze Lake. It took a while to find the portage from Boze to the Louse River. The portage is not often used. Once found, the fun began.
This portage seemed longer than the 130 rods listed on the map. It was difficult. It had a bit of everything; downed trees, muck, tall grass, trees, climbs of rock outcroppings, ups, downs, and overgrowth. We took the packs first. At several points, it looked like the trail just ended. With a little searching, we could find where it picked up again. I checked the GPS several times to make sure we were where we were supposed to be. We both went back for the canoe. There were many trees across the portage, some at chest height, it would be difficult for one person to manage the canoe. We did see what I believe to be a paw print from a wolf in the muck. It was too small for a bear but larger than a dog.
Once over the portage, the solitude was worth it. The river meanders with several pools created by beaver dams. We lifted over beaver dams, none too high, and had a few portages around low water areas or waterfalls. The river was full of lily pads and tall grass. There was always a path through the grass but we had to paddle through a lot of pads. It was slow going.
We ate another lunch of PB&J bagels on a portage to keep our energy up. When we crossed the portage into Trail Lake, I was relieved to rest for the evening. We got the south campsite on the lake around 2:30. We were the only people on the lake.
At the campsite, we unloaded the packs and took a break. I started to filter water to refill water bottles. The site was elevated above the lake with good views in all directions. There was moose scat on the trail behind the camp. Someone had cut down several live pine trees around the site and just left them lay there. It was disappointing to see. The trees still looked green, so it was a relatively new event. It is almost like someone was creating firewood for a return trip.
The clouds in the sky started to look a little dark, so I decided to start setting up my hammock. The best place I could find was down the trail to the outhouse. As I was beginning to set up, the sky opened, and hail began to fall.
I was dumb founded. I went back up the trail and found Ryan sheltered under a tree. We waited out the hail and when it stopped, he put up his tent and I put the tarp over my hammock. Once we were set up, the rain came. It poured. We had not had an opportunity to put up the dining fly, so we did it quickly while it was raining. It was not a great hang, but we were able to seek some shelter. By this point, most of the gear was soaked.
It rained off and on all evening and night. There was lightning, thunder, wind, more hail. Of course, we were the furthest point from civilization on our trip. We monitored the weather radio and at one point they said to seek shelter under a permanent structure, like that was an option for us. Our clothes were wet, but I did not want to change and get my dry clothes wet before bed. My primary concern was staying dry at night.
We cooked a dinner of Knorr chicken flavored noodles and foil pack chicken under the tarp. Desert was banana pudding, but we opted not to eat it. During a lull in the rain, we attempted to start a fire, but all the wood was soaked. We called it an early night so we could get into dry clothes and warm up. I read in the hammock for a while.
I did not sleep very well and woke up several times. Around 3:00 am the wind and rain stopped.
We traveled 6.5 challenging miles.
The rain had stopped but nothing had dried out by the time we woke. We had a breakfast of sausage gravy and biscuits then began packing up. We were careful to keep the items we wanted to keep dry separate from the wet items. The additional weight of the wet items in the packs were noticeable.
We were on the water a little later than usual this morning. It was a short paddle to the first portage. This portage has a steep decline into a creek bed and a steep incline out of the bed. The downward side was slick rock, and the rain from the night before did not help. I ended up sliding down into the creek bed. This area also required two of us to get the canoe through. The portage was overgrown but typical for this area. About 30 feet from the end of the portage, there was a beaver dam to lift over.
It was a short paddle up the river to the next portage. At this portage, the river had tall grass growing in it. There were three paths through the grass. One path appeared to go north toward Tool Lake. The other two paths went to the north shore and the south shore of the Louse River. We explored and found a portage landing on the south shore. The portage was in good shape and was well traveled. The landing at the other end of this portage was good and we were soon back on the water. We paddled a short distance and found ourselves back at the start of the same portage. Apparently, the portage took us south. I have never felt the need to use a compass on a portage. After further exploring, we found another, not so obvious, portage landing on the north shore. This was the correct portage. We were a little upset with ourselves for doing the extra work of going backwards.
The next portage took us into Bug Lake. I was a decent portage. We decided to have lunch at this portage. I could not take a third lunch of PB&J bagel in a row, so I got out the Starkist packets of buffalo chicken, rehydrated some cheese, and put it on tortillas. We had a decision to make. If we continue on the Louse River, the next two portages will be very difficult. We still had four portages to go before we got to our target lake. The other options was to go north on Bug and take two longer and one shorter portage to Mesaba Lake. Both routes will put us in good position to get to the long portage the next day. We decided to go north.
The portage from Bug to Dent took us a little while to find. We actually started down another path before we decided to keep searching. Dent is a pretty lake. About half the paddle was on the open lake and the other half was in a narrow channel.
The portage from Dent to Chaser Lake was difficult. It was mostly uphill from Dent and felt longer than the 131 rods on the map. The portage ended at a stream that was dammed by a beaver. The landing was difficult and once in the boat, we had to paddle around several trees to get to the dam. We lifted over the dam and were in Chaser Lake.
We paddled across Chaser to another dam. There was no obvious portage, but we were able to get over the dam and down to Mesaba. Once on Mesaba, we paddled about two thirds of the length of the lake and took the campsite on the north shore.
The campsite was not the best, but we made do. There were a couple decent tent pads, but I had to walk quite a distance to find two trees to hang my hammock. The fire grate area was exposed with no trees to provide any shade. It was also open to the wind coming from the west.
We were able to find a place to hang the dining tarp so it could dry out. We hung the remaining wet items. The sun and the breeze had most items dry quickly. Dinner was a pasta with beef and marinara sauce. Desert was freeze dried brownie crumbles.
At night I heard two animals. One was a beaver slapping its tail on the water. It did it about five times. While lying in the hammock, I heard an animal urinating not far from my hammock. It sounded like a horse peeing. I assume it was a larger animal.
We traveled about 7.5 miles today.
We woke to a clear day and calm water. We had oatmeal for breakfast and got packed up. The packs were lighter with all the gear dry. The portage from Mesaba to Hug Lake was easy to find and not difficult to cross.
We crossed hub and came to the lift over to Duck Lake. This should have been a simple portage but when I was getting out of the canoe, I stepped on a slick rock and took a swim. I was lucky to not flip the canoe when I grabbed for it.
We crossed Duck, found the portage to Zenith Lake. We found the plane crash on Zenith. There was not much left of it, so we did not stop for pictures. We crossed Zenith to the landing for the 472 rod (approx. 1.5 mile) portage to Lujenida Lake.
We attached as many loose items as possible to the packs so our arms would be free. This portage is difficult because of the length. Overall, it is well maintained. It is uphill out of Zenith and then drops to a stream crossing at the midway point. I had seen pictures where this stream was flooded by a beaver dam but that was not this case this time. The portage climbed again before dropping down to the landing. There are a few stream crossings, some ups and downs, climbs over rock outcroppings, and walks through high grass. Without a pack or canoe, it would be a great hike.
We leap frogged the portage. I carried the gear pack the length of the portage. Ryan carried the food pack to the midpoint and went back for the canoe. I dropped the gear pack at the end and went back for the food pack. Ryan and I met up at the midpoint when I picked up the food pack and he carried the canoe. We both got to the end of the portage around the same time.
We took a short break and started paddling down Lujenida. There was a beaver dam to lift over at the end of the lake where the creek leads to the Kelso River. The Kelso River is a winding paddle through tall grass. The creek opened into Kelso Lake. We took the second campsite on the lake, on a peninsula. We were there by noon.
The campsite has a nice rock landing with larger rocks to sit on to look at the lake. There were a couple good tent pads and I easily found trees to hang my hammock. Lunch was Starkist packets of citrus lime quinoa, beans, and chicken with rehydrated cheese on tortillas. We also ate the banana pudding desert that was left over from earlier in the trip.
We relaxed around the campsite and read during the afternoon. Dinner was beef stroganoff from Camp Chow, and desert was strawberry cheesecake again. Ryan built a fire, and we relaxed in the evening. I thought I heard another group on the south part of the lake, but we did not see anyone. Clouds were starting to roll in, so we got our rain flys ready in case it rained. We were in bed at a reasonable hour.
We traveled around five miles today.
~Mesaba Lake, Hug Lake, Duck Lake, Zenith Lake, Lujenida Lake, Kelso Lake
It started raining early this morning. It was a light, steady rain. Based upon the cloud cover, it did not look like it was going to end very soon.
This was our exit day, we did not need to be in a hurry, but we had to leave. Plus, we were really looking forward to showers and fresh cooked foods. We had a breakfast of granola cereal and got packed up. Most things were wet, but we were not as careful keeping the wet stuff separate while packing since we would not need the gear again this trip. We were on the water by nine.
We paddled south on Kelso and took the Kelso River over to Sawbill. By this time, we were soaked from the rain. At the end of the portage to Sawbill, we saw our first signs of people in four days. The campsite across from the portage had a canoe in it.
We had a bit of a headwind as we paddled through the bay toward the main part of Sawbill. Once on Sawbill, the wind was from the east. The water was not rough, but we kept close to the western shore. I did not want to cross the lake in the wind until the lake narrowed south of where we were.
As we paddled south, we saw a group come from a portage to the fire chain lakes. We later learned they were from Oklahoma, and this was their first trip to the Boundary Waters. They base camped and fished for the week.
As we approached the dock at Sawbill, there were two groups coming off the lake and another two canoes heading out toward Alton. We arrived at the dock around noon, unloaded, returned the canoe and pack to the outfitters, retrieved my keys, and put all the wet gear in the trunk of my car. We got our clean clothes and went to the showers. We felt like new people once we were clean.
The paddle out was about 4 miles.
I used the outfitters wi-fi to check in at home. That is when I noticed a missed call and voice message from the day before from my uncle that has been fighting a long battle with cancer. My heart sank a little when I saw it, thinking the worst. When we finally got back to cell service and realized the message was from him, we felt a little better.
We stopped in a little pizza and sandwich shop west of Tofte and had our first non-dehydrated meal in days. It was very good. We started the drive south and were at the Lismore Hotel in Eau Clair before dinner. We had a few drinks at the rooftop bar, went to the restaurant in the hotel for a good dinner, and were back in the room for the night.
Last travel day. We had breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then were on our way. I dropped Ryan at the airport in Madison around noon and continued the drive back to Central Ohio. I made it home a little after 9:00pm and unloaded all the wet gear from my car and hung it in the garage to dry.