BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 23 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1498 feet
Ram Lake - 44
Dry Summer, Wet Fall (2007)
September 26, 2007
Bower Trout Lake (43)
Number of Days:
We started early in the morning. Joel was at Chris’s house in Minneapolis at 6:30 am and were on the road by 7. We had a nice ride up to Duluth. For the first time we stopped and did some shopping on the way. The weather reports were for some rain over the weekend and there had been a lot of rain the week before we went up. This raised concerns about how much water we were going to encounter (on the portages, yes, I realize that we're on a canoe trip crossing lakes filled with the wet stuff) and the footwear that we might need. We both were wearing low cut hiking shoes.
A stop at Gander Mountain in Duluth was in order. Arriving around 9:30 we headed to the boots section. They have a lot of boots. We tried most of them on…. Twice….. at least. Grams of Thinsulate, lace types (eyelet vs. hooks), boot height/ weight, height of tongue connection, boot color, tread type, comfort levels with thin socks and thick socks, these phrases pepper our conversation. 10:00… Joel decided not to buy anything and concentrated on pulling a variety of models for Chris. Chris was leaning towards a warmer boot with a soft comfy sole. 10:30… Joel was back trying on boots, moving his inserts from boot to boot. Chris was wandering around with a boot on one foot and three pairs of socks on the other foot. If he didn't get an insulated boot, he didn't want cold feet, thus any serious candidate had to pass the multiple sock test. 10:45… Joel couldn't find anything that felt right, back to pulling samples for Chris. Chris was on the floor surrounded by a dozen boxes, a different boot on each foot, while he examined a third boot for flexibility. While the store staff wasn’t' badgering us to buy anything, one safety conscious employee set up a perimeter of orange cones warning of trip hazards. 11:00 Joel is methodically trying to match the losers of the boot lottery to the boxes from which they came. Chris is on is third final decision. Uh-oh, Joel spies a couple of intriguing possibilities and begins trying on boots again. The orange cone perimeter has been expanded cutting off a main traffic isle. Two employees don blaze orange vests (borrowed from the hunting area) and begin diverting traffic. 11:15… We've narrowed our choices down to something from the right side of the store, but found a new clearance rack. Progress? It's a push. 11:30… The floors have cleared, traffic patterns have returned to normal. We've made our choices. We tenderly carry our merchandise to the register prodded on by a cheering throng of employees and customers. It's a scene similar to that found at the end of marathons, exhausted but happy looks on faces. A life's goal has been accomplished.
Basking in the glow of our achievement, we head up the road to Grand Marais. Sign says only 100 miles to go. Two hours later we make a quick stop at the ranger station for our permit and Dairy Queen for a burger. On to the Gunflint Trail. Let the picture taking begin.
Once every trip we test our navigational skills by taking an unplanned detour. We've never actually gotten lost, but we have had to re-paddle a stretch or two. Usually this occurs while paddling, today it occurs while driving. Let's just say that there weren't any large signs marking the road for our turn. A sign saying "Joel and Chris Turn here NOW!!!" would have been nice. Taking the round about way there and back again, we find our entry point "parking lot" around 2:30. There was another vehicle in the lot painted with a camouflage pattern. We unloaded the car as an older couple arrives to go fishing on Ram Lake. With our new boots on and our clean faces smiling, we head down the portage for the first time. I'm the last one at the truck, time check is 3:00. Depending on how fast things go, we may be adjusting our targeted camping site.
The paddle was rather uneventful across the first couple of lakes. I don't remember any of the portages being very difficult either. Relatively short, a bit more hilly than in the past, with wet squishy paths to test our new boots. A recurring theme for this trip.
We decide to stay on Little Trout Lake, two portages and a Lake short of our planned destination on Vista Lake. Oh well at least our feet will be dry on this trip. One of the portages is listed at 200 rods and we'd rather make camp while the sun is still up. The island site that we first wanted to check on is occupied. The occupation is not easily seen however. This must be the owner of the camo car. What appears to be a floating coffee cup is actually a coffee cup held by a man in full camo. He is a bit difficult to pick out as he sits back in the trees observing his surroundings. His camo tent and camo painted solo canoe are hard to spot as well. We'd meet him on Thursday again while out on the water. He was much easier to see when he was on the lake.
We head across the lake to the camp site closest to the portage that will initiate our travels on Thursday. The campsite is small little spot nestled at the base of a good sized hill. It's a nice shaded spot, with rather small tent sites, the best one being only 10 or so feet from the fire pit. We begin to set up camp. Each of us doing "our chores" falling into what is becoming an unspoken routine. We set the tent first as a team. Then Chris works industriously setting up the tarp and begins the process of gathering firewood. Imagine a beaver on amphetamines and you'll begin to appreciate the size of the wood pile typically generated by Mr. Olson. Let's just say we've never run out of firewood. Joel pretends to look busy preparing the meal. It's chili, heat and eat, how hard can that be. Mostly Joel tries not to hyperventilate breathing in the fresh pine scented air with huge lung filling drafts. Life is good. The lake is quiet and Chris runs out of chores. So Joel turns up the heat on the chili and serves supper. We enjoy a nice fire and read a bit from one of the books Joel brought along.
Thursday Day 2 Lakes (Little Trout, Misquah, Vista, Horseshoe, Gaskin, Winchell)
What a beautiful morning, we are blissfully unaware of the reputation that accompanies our first portage. We take our time waking and making breakfast. This is the first of two slow paced mornings. Because I over packed on the fresh milk by accident, we have milk to add to the making of the pancakes. No sense carrying the extra weight any longer than necessary. With the removal of the heavy chili and the 8 oz of milk, Chris is prepared to skip lightly across the portage path with the food pack, or not.
Once on the water, we expect a short paddle to our portage. As we left our camp site we spotted camo man from the previous evening. He's very chatty and keeps tabs on us while we paddle back and forth across our bay looking for a portage. We find the portage with camo mans help, he says that he's considering traveling across the portage himself if Trout fishing gets slow. Typically one can spot a portage by the worn foliage areas where people take out canoes, or the gap in the trees where the path begins. Not this portage. There is no foliage at the take out area because it is a boulder field. Imagine those large landscaping stones people use to decorate front yards. They use one or two and the kids like to play on and climb over them. My parents have one. That is the size of the boulders strewn in all directions at the portage landing. The “gap in the trees” is off to the right, tucked behind some bushes and a very large rock at the other end of the boulder field. To get to it, one has to hop from boulder to boulder across the field until you reach dirt. It's at this point that camo man informs us that this particular portage has a reputation as one of the hardest in the Eastern Boundary Waters.
We head off across the boulder path portage. Topographically the portage has two good sized hills which act as bookends for a swamp in the middle. It is definitely a challenge. What makes it so much fun is the fact that you can't just walk putting one foot in front of the other. Each step must be planned as you contort your body over, across, around rocks as you go up and down the slopes of the hills. The "flat" ground between the hills isn't any better, mostly because there wasn't any ground. The path was typically under water (nice test for our new boots ) where one could choose to walk through the water or along the muddy edge. In some places there were logs to allow one to cross the water. Very slipper logs. Baby steps were in order on the logs, they tended to move and shift and balance was a challenge. There are "tough" portages and then there are portages where you're just glad when no one gets hurt in the process. I was just glad no one got hurt on this portage.
Nothing in particular stands out regarding the rest of our day until we got to the portage into Winchell, except to say that while the portages were shorter, the were still hilly, rocky and wet. I don't even remember where we had lunch. As we approached the portage to Winchell, we could see that rain was on the way. We wanted to get to our campsite before it started to rain, in hopes that we could set up a tarp to stay dry. We single portaged into Winchell in order to save some time, which left Chris carrying two pretty heavy packs. Then we put our backs into paddling to find a camp site. Winchell is a about 7 miles long going West to East but only about ½ mile wide North to South. It's 7-9 campsites are all along the northern shore. We passed the first couple camp site locations with a slight breeze in our faces hoping to make our way a bit farther down the lake. Just as we got to where we could see the third camp, two things happened. One - we saw that it was occupied, bummer. Two - a nasty head/cross wind slammed into us, and we could see a wall of rain that would arrive in about 10 seconds. Rain Jackets on, hoods up. Bam. Waves were not a concern, but I've never had my canoe moved from side to side like that before. Now we paddled like wet rats into the driving rain and wind up to the next camp site. We pulled over to check it out. It was a little bit too close to the occupied site we'd just passed for our liking, but we were exhausted. It was time to stop. The site was up above the water with a good tent pad and food pack tree. The rain let up and we began the process of making camp. The day's travel had started and ended with a bang and we were tired.
Tent and Tarp were set up, more fire wood gathered and work on supper begins. Joel prepares a Steak and foil wrapped potato/carrot/onion side dish. Once again, dinner preparation was done mostly in the dark. Dark is a good time to eat my camp cooking. It helps one evaluate the items consumed based on taste rather than looks. Have I mentioned how much we made use of our headlamps on this trip? They really help extend the travel day, because you can function fairly well in the dark making food. I'm not sure that a longer travel day is what Chris was hoping for, but my headlamp has replaced my other flashlights, and it weighs less.
We stared at the fire for a while after supper before heading to bed. I don't believe we read any books after the first night on the this trip. I don't know if the book topics just didn't resonate this time, or if we were too tired, or if the tradition is fading away. I know that I won't be bringing 4 books up again. (I'm not sure that Chris knows he carried that many around with him for the week)
Friday Day 3 Lakes (Winchell, Gaskin)
What a gorgeous morning, the only day of the trip that didn't include rain. I took some pictures of the sunrise that look pretty good. We decided to make this our rest day and do a little exploring. A little exploring ended up being a good 7-8 miles of paddling with a little bit of portaging tossed in. We investigated some of the water inlets and outlets for Lake Winchell and did a bit of lure wetting. I'd say fishing, but we'd already caught our one fish for the trip on Thursday. "Lure wetting" sets the correct tone for our expectations.
Late in the afternoon, we decided it was nap time. This was the only day that the hammock was put to use. I'm not quite sure how Chris and his 10 year old son Michael managed to hang his orange hammock in May, but apparently Michael's expertise is required for the feat, because Chris and Joel didn't seem up to the task. Let's just say that the hammock set up time was probably longer than Chris's nap time. I left for the tent to take my nap, Chris prepared for his in the hammock. Not fully confident with the hammock entrance and exit procedures, we set up a series of signals should he require help extricating himself.
Saturday Day 4 Lakes (Winchell, Wanihigan, Grassy, Mulligan, Lily, Brule, Brule Bay, Vernon, Swan)
Repeat after me, wet, cool (I reserve Cold for when it snows), windy, muddy… and that was the trip to the latrine. The trip plan for Saturday was fairly aggressive. So we started the day with cold cereal and broke camp early. Well not as early as I initially tried to send us out. You see, when we went to bed I'd made the statement that we should get going when the sun came up because we had a long way to travel. Chris agreed. Well, I woke up and it had started to get lighter out, so I figured the sun would be up soon. I began to get dressed and rustle about. Chris woke up and asked, "What in the world are you doing?". I told him it was getting lighter out so I thought I'd get up. He graciously informed me that it was the middle of the night and to go back to bed. I stuck my head out the tent door. Sure enough, moon and stars. Bright moon, but still, just moon and stars. There must have been a break in the clouds. I went back to sleep…
Once the sky did actually get brighter via the sun, we were on our way under a gray sky. As we got to the first portage, it began to rain. It was one of those short portages that follow a small rapids beneath cedar trees. My favorite kind. Well when we got to the other side with our first load, the wind began to blow and it started to rain harder. We decided to put our rain pants on after moving the second load and wait out the heavy rain under the cover of trees. My rain pants slide on quickly. Chris begins to grumble that he can't get his boot through his rain pant leg. Why would they make rain pants that force you to take off your shoes in order to get dressed? So he sits on a rock and carefully removes his boots one at a time, slips his foot through the leg and quickly into his boot to keep his feet dry. Chris re-laces the boots, and tries to pull up "his" rain pants. Turns out "his" rain pants are really Michael's rain pants (Michael being his 10 year old son) and Chris can't pull them up beyond his knees without losing circulation to his feet. We have a little chuckle (belly laugh) over that one. Chris foregoes rain pants for the rest of the trip. Apparently it is difficult to portage with your knees bound together.
Once the wind died down (notice I didn't say the rain let up) we worked our way over portages and lakes until we reached the portage into Grass lake. In this case Grass was mud stew. The end of the portage was a good 75 yards short of water. Between the water and the end of the portage was a field of soupy looking mud. We surmized later, that the large amounts of rain water earlier in the month must have washed out a beaver dam, draining most of the lake. We chose to bushwhack along the edge of the lake alternating between fighting through trees or slopping through the shoreline mud. In this manner we portaged, to the portage out of Grass/mud Lake. It was here that we met a couple of moose hunters on the there way in for a second attempt at a moose for the fall. Good luck to them.
We worked our way down to Brule lake and found a spot to eat lunch on an island campsite as it started to rain harder. After lunch we paddle in the rain across the expanse of Brule Lake. The portages didn't need the extra rain. They were already squishy with excess water. The only bright spot to the travel conditions was that it was not cold. Once off Brule, the rain subsided. For the rest of the day, the rain was much lighter and intermittent.
Once we reach Swan Lake, we pick an elevated camp site with a unique entrance. The location to get out of the canoe is tucked off to the side in a small alcove of trees. A short path connected the landing area to the camp site. The tent and tarp were set up for one last time. The dry spot under the tarp was very much appreciated. The Noah tarp was a good purchase. In this case we set up the tarp over the camp fire grate as we did not plan to build a fire. For a final time supper is prepared by the light of a head-lamp. The soup and grilled cheese are something easily prepared with the camp stove. This had been a tiring paddle day, we do not linger over the camp stove once supper is consumed.
Just a quick note about this camp site. Wow, was the ground soft for the tent pad. Exhaustion and soft ground, nice combination. Only draw back was that one of the grommets on the tent pushed through the strap. Chris did a nice job securing the tent poles so that the tent stayed up all night.
Sunday Day 5 Lake (Swan, Skidaway, Dugout, Marshall, Bower Trout)
This is exit day. Still had a good bit of rain as we paddle. Two Bald Eagle sightings highlight our paddling. On the first we spot an eagle perched high above us in a tree on the hillside. The height of the tree accentuated by the fact that blow down and fire have been through the area in the past couple of years. The eagle watches our entire passage across the small lake. Our second eagle sighting is made impressionable by the fact that it is on a shoreline rock eating something. As we paddle quietly closer, the eagle takes off carrying the entrails of whatever it was eating. Very cool.
We make our way to the exit point on Bower Trout Lake. This is the first time that we've ever tried exiting at a different point than where we went into the BWCA. In this case our two entry points are only a mile or two apart so Joel heads off with the canoe on the portage. At the parking lot he sets the canoe down and makes his way to the truck parked at the other entry point. Every five steps he checks for the vehicle keys, paranoid that he forgot them back with Chris. Images of getting to the car only to find that the keys are a mile away dance through his head.
A quick drive back to pick up Chris and we are on our way to Grand Marais for our long awaited pizza at Swen and Ole's. Emphasis on "long-awaited". The Vikings are playing the Packers on T.V. We watch the second and third quarters while we wait in line and wait for our pizza. Once served, it is delicious.