BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
March 23 2023
Entry Point 38 - Sawbill Lake
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1802 feet
Sawbill Lake - 38
Sawbill Temperance loop
June 24, 2007
Number of Days:
Sawbill to Cherokee
Left my parents house just outside of Duluth by 7 am and got to Sawbill Outfitters around 9:30. Got the canoe setup and made our way down to the lake. This is our first trip to the BWCA and after a year of planning, there was a nervous feeling knowing we were actually about to get it going. I felt the first day was going to be the hardest, due to the length of travel, the first day, nerves, all that good stuff. Fortunately, we had a wind out of the south and immediately realized what a difference a good canoe makes. I borrowed my brothers tank of a canoe for a few months leading up to the trip to get some experience. It's been a long, long time since I was in a canoe. The #1 priority for me was not to capsize. The practice paid off and we actually developed some skill and technique during our practice runs. Once we got loaded up and moving we found the Souris River Quetico Kevlar 17 to be an incredible vessle. So stable, fast, and easy to maneuver. I was so happy to have that wind!! We made it to the end of the lake(4 miles) in about an hour and 20 minutes. I will add that I was nervous about navigating but those fears were quickly dashed after just simply following the map we got from the outfitter. I had bought a waterproof map that Sawbill Outfitter has made up that, for the entirety of the trip, was absolutley dead on perfect. Literally never had to look at a compass.
So we got to the end of the lake and were a few minutes behind another group. We waited a while till they cleared the landing, and got ready for our first portage. This was another source of nervousness, since I had never portaged a canoe. I have plenty of experience hiking and climbing in the Pacific NW. Summitted Rainier, Adams, St Helens and numerous other peaks, along with many hikes throughout western Washington. BUT, that never included carrying a canoe. But I found the first portage easy and, from then on, didn't have any worries about the rest.
The portage from Ada Lake to Skoop Lake did take me by surprise. A beaver had built a dam at the beginning of the portage that resulted in a 110 rod wade through sometimes knee high slop. I ended up doing this one 3 times since I was to double portage the entire trip. I wanted to do everything I could to help my wife have an enjoyable trip so I was going to double portage, taking first the canoe and small pack, and then the big pack, while she just took the food pack. I don't care to have another portage like that. I kept envisioning the scene in 'Stand By Me' where the boys fall in the swampy pond and get out covered in leeches. Luckily, there were none and it turned out to be just a wet experience. On the bright side, my quick pace allowed us to leapfrog the group in front of us during the portage that made me feel better about getting a good site on Cherokee. I figured there would be some competition for sites on this lake and as it turned out, there were. The paddle along Cherokee creek was a bit odd. Nearly no current, narrow and almost eerie. Finally we got to Cherokee and ended up having to go past 6 sites, some with some noisy people, to find a site on the west side. We got the tent setup and took a nap on the large rock that led to the waters edge. No bugs, warm sun, slight breeze, life was good.
Cherokee to South Temperance
We had a lazy morning and had a terrific breakfast of eggs, hashbrowns and bacon. The weather was still incredible. A tad warm and humid, but better than rain. I read that the first portage of the day was a tough one but it wasn't too bad. It was a bit hilly going to Sitka, but nothing compared to taking a 60 pound pack to Mt St Helens in the winter. Today was to be an easier day so I was finally able to get the line in the water on North Temperance. It didn't take long before I hooked into a nice smallmouth bass. One thing the Pac NW does not have is great fishing so that was a blast. I couldn't wait to get to our destination on South Temperance so I could actually get some real fishing in. Our shortest portage yet and we were on S Temperance. We didn't get the site I had hoped, but got the one on the NW corner. S Temp is a very nice lake. Beautiful islands and quiet. Only 4 sites on the lake and we saw only 1 canoe the rest of the day. We spent an hour or two setting up since the next day was a lay over day. Just a great day. Fell asleep to wolves in the distance. BTW, loons are the coolest birds. Their call defines the BWCA.
Today turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my life. Not that that was the plan. We had another terrific breakfast. I caught a northern and a bunch of bass from shore and we took an early afternoon nap. I awoke to see my wife was still asleep so I snuck out as quietly as I could to fish off a small island just off the site. The bass were biting and I had a blast. There was a little weather coming in so I figured it was about time to head in. I had brought a couple of bass with from earlier in the day, and with a couple I had caught off the island, I got busy cleaning them for a fish lunch. This would be our first fish meal of the trip. No walleye though. Bummer.
There were some dark clouds and wind so I hurried up and paddled the short distance back to camp and we got the stove going. It felt like rain so we put up the tarp while the fish was finishing up. We had just sat down to begin eating when the rain started. Within a minute the wind really started whipping so we huddled up eating the fish right out of the pan. It was SOOO good!! I used an awesome home made breading and real butter to fry in. We were about half way done when a roar in the distance concerned me. I said to my wife, 'That does not sound good'. It was like a train or jet that sounded like it was getting closer. Immediately the wind started to really pick up and it just wouldn't stop. It just kept coming. It was just unreal. I grabbed my wife, who by now was starting to cry. I mean it was howling. And still building. Then the shit flew. The tarp blew apart and we got close under some small trees. I looked at the tent and it flattened like a pancake. Then it pulled out of the stakes and started to go. I screamed at my wife to grab a tree. You couldn't hear anything. Just the roar of the wind. And the water. Obviously rain, but I believe the wind was also picking water up off the lake because it was like we were being blown by a giant pressure washer. I dove for the tent. The thought just popped in my head that I had to save it. Shelter is too important to lose. So I was literally laying on it against some brush and I look back at my wife. I yelled 'Let go of the trees!!!', as they was falling like bowling pins. Again, it was just surreal.
And then, as fast as it came, it was gone. It was just like it was before it all started. The obvious thought was that it was a tornado. It wasn't until we got back to the outfitter that we were told it was likely a microburst. Never heard of it before. I know about it now. Anyway, my first thought was we had to get a grip on what was left. What broke, blew away, that sort of thing. To her credit, my wife regained her composer quickly and we started gathering up the gear. We were COMPLETELY soaked. Just as wet as can be. And there was debris everywhere. A combination of bark, needled, leaves everywhere. Packed in every nook there was. Ears, eyes, pockets, everywhere. I was just amazed nothing blew away. We recovered everything. The camp chair went the farthest. About 20 feet in the trees. I remember being pissed that there were still bits of cooked fish on the ground. Not really edible anymore, needless to say. The only damage was bent tent poles and the grommets on the tarp. Luckily the tent was still usable. A little off kilter but still usable. 3 grommets on the tarp were still attatched to the rope that was tied to trees that blew down. The luckiest part by far, though, was the canoe. 5 trees fell across it but did not damage it at all. In a way that might have been a blessing. I am certain it would have caught air if not for the trees. Then who knows. Also, I had kept the packs closed up under the canoe when not in use so the majority of the gear was still stowed away underneath the canoe. I was able to lift the biggest tree that was on the canoe and my wife was able to stick a 3 foot long piece of cut tree under it to prop it up. The rest were just barely on top of the canoe and I was able to slide it out from underneath. We spent about 2 hours taking things to the lake to rinse off. I mean, everything was dirty. We had a rope strung up between 2 trees that went down, and most of the things that were hanging on it were still there. We re strung the rest of the ropes and cord we had to hang things to dry. It still rained a little throughout the day but we got most everything dry. This all happened about 3:40 pm btw. It was 3:51 when it dawned on me to check the time.
The trail to the latrine was blocked by trees as far as we could see. The fire grate had dissappeared under some trees. I didn't bring a saw. That won't happen again. There was little I could do to clear the downed trees so we walked around where we could. There was a 2nd tent pad about 25 feet in the trees that my wife wanted us to use that was completely hammered by trees. Felt blessed there.
It was just after 6 pm when we got the canoe in the water to go check on other parties on the lake. I was certain someone had to be hurt. The first site we wanted but was taken was wiped out but empty, thank God. Another site was occupied on the south end of the lake, but the wind didn't get them. We didn't check the last site on the east end. We could clearly see there area that the wind hit. The majority of the north shore had significant blow down. I was amazed at root systems that grew on huge rocks at the shoreline that when the trees went, it exposed the rocks for the first time in who knows how long. And the rocks looked as clean as could be. The wind and water, I assumed. We got back to camp, tired and worn out. We had an easy dinner and went to bed, again to wolves in the distance. The moon was as bright as I had ever seen.
It was then I actually felt lucky. It was an insane day, but we were all right. The big man upstairs was watching over us that day. All the trees that fell, but none on us? I mean, we were right in the middle of it. I could not imagine what it was like in 95' or whenever the big one was. This was small scale compared to that, but it was still scary.
South Temperance to Sawbill
After the events of the day before we felt like we needed to just get out and get back to our kids. We had planned on taking 2 more days before exiting. We were originally planning to spend a night on Kelly but talked it over and both of us agreed to go for it and do what it took to cover the remaining ground in one day. I wasn't sure my wife was up to that much travel in one day, but she is tough when she needs to be. We were off early. About 7am we were on the water. Honestly the portages up to that point were not that hard but the longest day was day one and that was only 450 rods and today would be about 820 rods. But when you have a little more incentive, you certainly can do more.
The longest portage of the trip was first but it was easy. Completely flat and it was no problem. Today was to be the first day where we would encounter head winds and it sure was breezy. It wasn't until we got to Kelly that the winds became an issue. We were going to paddle with a purpose and I knew we would run low on gas at some point. Then we headed west and once we got to Burnt, the wind was creating mild white caps. Honestly, if it was only my decision we would have stopped. But my wife surprised me by wanting to go for it. It was certainly more wind than I wanted to paddle in, but we rested for 15 minutes and went for it. There was a time or two when I was worried that we could be in trouble, but we both paddled with everything we had and made it through the open water sections. A couple of times when the wind almost had us broadside and I thought we were close to getting blown over. Once the water was right at the edge of the canoe. Again, #1 priority was not to capsize and I felt we were too close.
I thought the worst was on Burnt but Smoke really had me worried. Good thing it is very shallow on the west end. It was windy but the waves weren't bad. By now I knew we were going to make it with time to spare so I had an extra bounce in my step on the portages. The side wind on Sawbill wasn't bad and we made it to the outfitter just after 2 pm. I am proud of the old lady. She isn't a country girl by any means, but she has an edge. She was tough. I'm still not going to take her up a mountain, but she had fun and is willing to go to the BWCA again, despite what we went through.
I know it might have been too windy that day, but my wife was hell bent on getting out. We hugged the shore as much as possible, so I think we did it as safely as possible. I can say nothing but good things about Sawbill Outfitters and it's crew. It is a good operation. Bill was great. He showed me where other micro bursts had hit and got the word out the rangers. They have since cleaned up the sites so I think they are useable again.