BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 23 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1864 feet
Lizz & Swamp Lakes - 47
2013 EP 47: NEW TITLE: Bad Decisions and Dangerous Mistakes
August 21, 2013
Lizz and Swamp Lakes
Number of Days:
Many of the people who have read this report thought it was so offensive that it had to be fictional. It's not a joke or made up - I'm not pulling anybody's leg. I wrote the report three years ago and finally posted it, and this group, "The Guys," my best friends, has since gotten in trouble at a few state parks for being too roudy. So we're still learning. In the report, I describe bad decisions like stealing from local businesses (who make tiny profits and work hard to stay afloat) which is immoral, and I want to pay them back the next time I go up there.
The report also describes dangerous mistakes that we made. My friends brought terrible footwear and ended up having only flip flops. They even portaged barefoot a couple times, which could have resulted in an emergency that could have required a rescue: a waste of tax dollars. Also, most regrettably, we got way too drunk. I water-damaged my phone and my camera, and, being the group leader, I failed to "close down" camp properly. Being so drunk, we could have easily hurt ourselves, which could have turned sour quickly since it is, afterall, a remote wilderness.
Some people who read the report were offended at how I handled trash that I found, and this ism y defense: I packed out all the trash we made, including all the cigarette butts we produced, and even the tiniest wrappers. Yeah, I didn't dive down and grab the 4-5 plates at the bottom of Winchell, but maybe I will next time. As for the trash I found along the portage from Horseshoe to Gaskin, it was scattered around about 10-15 feet from the portage. I gathered it and put it in a bag, and I left the bag next to the canoe landing. I decided that if nobody had taken it by the time my group was leaving, I would have taken it. When we were leaving, it was gone. I didn't want to carry it in because we were so over-packed.
Maybe if you're under 25 or 30 you should have to get a "special permit" that requires extra education...? Maybe extra punishments for group leaders whose groups mess up? Maybe a mentor program? I'm not sure. Anyway, I apologize in advance. In my next trip report you'll find that our morals, behavior and planning have improved!
We were four inexperienced 23 year olds entering through Poplar and planning to base camp on Winchell or Omega and then finishing the loop. I misjudged the distance and we went back the way we came in after one party member got sick. It was my twin brother Alex and our friends-for-eleven-years Corey and Mike. We have been going on annual trips for three years now. First was New York for a week, then San Francisco (which my brother paid for by selling his magic mushrooms), and now, after much begging and convincing, it was time for our Boundary Waters trip. My brother and I had been up once before to Snowbank Lake while the other two had never been. I wanted a loop with cliffs and planned on base camping for three nights. I planned the trip so that it would end right as the Perseids Meteor Shower (the best of the year) was peaking. Read on if you’d like to read about a first-time BW experience that includes bushwhacking, cliff climbing, barefoot portaging, shooting stars, drunken fails, “WALLEYE BALLS” and more!
*slaps butt* “That wasn’t gay, there was a misquito on your ass.” “Let’s do.” “He fucked up,” or, “Damn, you fucked up!” “WALLEYE BALLS!”
Don’t get too drunk – it causes accidents and is a waste of time. Don’t bring electronics. If you do, bag them. If you don’t bag them, stay away from the water and don’t drink.
DAY 1 – Traveling and Camping at the Nor’Wester Outfitter
Corey ended up driving. He showed up late to my mom’s house in Southwest Minneapolis because Mike forgot the permit stuff that I had requested he print out, since my printer didn’t have any ink. We hurried to unpack, reorganize and bag or waterproof everything. Michael suggested that we check the tent bag, to make sure the tent was inside. I decided we should just start moving since it was already 11am. This was Mistake #1. When we got going, Alex realized Mistake #2: he forgot his phone. Now, after the trip, it seems he made a lucky mistake because three pieces of electronics were damaged by water. (LESSON LEARNED: Either don’t bring electronics, or keep them away from the water and in baggies. Also, don’t get so drunk!) When we got on 35 heading to Duluth, even before we passed downtown, Corey thought he was being pulled over and almost hit the cop who was trying to pass him. This was the only “bump in the road” for the entire drive. We stopped at Palisade Head only because I begged. We were rushed and I was somewhat disappointed that we couldn’t go to the Museum of Sandpaper (Two Harbors?), the Frank Lloyd Wright Gas Station (Duluth) or the Oberg Mountain Trail loop (North Shore somewhere). At Grand Marais we ate at a cute diner. I ran to a nearby store to steal a disposable camera and afterwards, we got gas and corrected Mistake #3 by getting a compass, which I had forgotten. Michael was worried about the compass, but I reassured him that we’d be able to read the geographical cues. (Later, while setting up camp at the outfitter, we found where we were on the lake, and decided how we’d get to the first portage. When the skies cleared at night I was even able to show them how to find the North Star.) When we got to the outfitter we looked around and admired the rustic antiquey décor. The owner’s wife was distraught. She helped us with our permit and campsite even though her husband’s brother had been missing for seven days. He was picking blueberries near Seagull Lake, where he had been picking them since he was a young boy. He was 82, had 2 knee replacements, and so far the official search (now officially finished) had only recovered his truck. Our “group movie” was Stand By Me, a classic Rob Ryner story about 4 boys camping, following railroad tracks to where they knew a man’s undiscovered body might be found for a reward. We had this romantic image of four boys trekking through the wilderness, and the search for the owner’s brother’s body helped to set the tone of our trip. Indeed, the man in the movie also died while picking berries. We unpacked and quickly discovered that the tent bag had poles and a rain fly, but no tent. I should have listened to Mike that morning and checked the tent bag to see if there was a tent inside. We asked the owner (whose brother was missing) if we could use one of their tents. He offered a 3-person and a 4-person, and I (not hearing him well) took the 3-person. The next day, when I asked for the 4-person I said, “I think we’ll need the 4-person, even though you offered it to us yesterday night!” and he chuckled. His wife later said that it was the first time he laughed in a week. My brother Alex set up the tents while we all helped out and drank. I tried calling my girlfriend from the payphone after realizing I wasn’t going to get cellular service way up north, something I regretted since it was the first week of our long- distance relationship. She didn’t answer, and I wasn’t able to talk to her until I got home five days later. It was a terrible way to start our long- distance relationship after a summer of constant contact, after hanging out nearly every day for months – it was a test. My friends and I smoked while we looked up at the stars out on the dock, and I became excited to capture the meteor shower with my camera. Years ago I had gotten a Canon S90, a full-manual compact digital with good low-light capabilities, a real gem. On the dock, we talked with a volunteer who came up to search for the missing man. We’d end up talking to many volunteers.
DAY 2 Portaging to Winchell – BAREFOOT with Portage Descriptions
POPLAR We broke down camp, skipped breakfast (perhaps a mistake) and hustled to get our canoes on the water. POPLAR is pretty, big, and complex with many islands and points, however it has development on its northern side, which made us feel a little too… societal. We headed for the first PORTAGE FROM POPLAR TO LIZZ. The landing was perhaps the prettiest of them all, and rocky but easy. Its difficulty was easy – a 4/10 perhaps. There were lots of big canoe-scraping boulders on the trail, and a bit steep, but short. It being the shortest portage on the lake, it was well maintained and wide, with no mud or overgrowth – perhaps a 5/5 because the Lizz landing even had logs to stand on while putting the canoes in. We saw a large group coming from Winchell and Omega. They were friendly, told us we were only the second group they had seen coming in, and said the fishing was great only on Sunday. After the portage we decided that yes, we had over-packed and would have to double-portage.
LIZZ was our favorite lake, we later decided. It was very minimal – a straight shot with no points, and only a cute little island, and it has a sign that says “Welcome to the Boundary Waters.” LIZZCARABOU PORTAGE When we got across Lizz we got to a nasty, mucky portage. There was a wooden pole in the shallow muck to help us unload. We went into the woods and grabbed a few more poles to aid ourselves (and others). While doing our second round of portaging, Alex broke his flip flop, threw it in the trash bag, and said he’d do it barefoot since the trail was so muddy. Corey did the same. It felt good because they were stepping in sun-cooked, warm mud. The portage was easy – another 4/10 because it was straight with little elevation change. It was wide and heavily trafficked, but was extremely muddy with a terrible landing and no space on the Lizz side. Overall, it was a 2-3/5 maintenance rating. The Caribou side landing was very easy, rocky, and had a drop-off, but the campsite that is right across from it ruins the natural feeling. We saw another group right as we were leaving.
CARABOU Caribou was pretty – a medium size lake that is geographically un- notable, except for its islands and bays. The landing to the CARABOU- HORSESHOE PORTAGE was rocky and had some canoe-ruiners, but the portage was short and had a small creek with falls running next to it. There is a hard- to-see trail that goes to a small ledge by the tiny falls. Difficulty: 2/10, maintenance: 5/5. The Horseshoe landing was super easy, and has a wood barricade right at the shore to help with the landing. We saw another group. By this point I became disappointed that we were seeing so many people, even though we were getting further from the entry point. Mike, a first timer, made note that it is probably safer with all the extra people. Besides, they were a couple in their 40s or 50s who seemed like pros. They were friendly and gave advice, like, “Yup, all ya need ta do is lighten up a bit.” He told us of a time, laughing, when he casted out his lure and before it hit the surface, a northern had jumped up and grabbed it. He was doing it right. Packing light: His partner a woman who he’d make love with later that night. Maybe someday!
HORSESHOE Horseshoe is a beautiful and complex lake because it has long fingers that make it feel like a watery freeway. We encountered strong winds while West on the Southern finger, and it felt like we were on a treadmill for canoes. Exhausted, we decided that we would take our first break at the end of the next portage. When we got to the HORSESHOE-GASKIN PORTAGE, we encountered a group who was just getting onto Horseshoe. I yelled, asking if the portage was OK. They said, “Oh a little up and down but nothing too bad!” This guy must have been a champion. He’s used to the 300 rod portages. This was a 180 rod portage that whooped our asses. The guys, still barefoot, lugged their gear over a massive, rockier-than-usual hump of earth. Lots of elevation gain, and it wasn’t a straight path. Parts were narrow and overgrown, however it was dry: I’d rate its level of maintenance as a 3/5, and its difficulty a 7/10, simply because we were newbies and we were tired, with no food in our bellies. The Horseshoe landing is a little constricted and rocky. In the woods, I found some baggies of trash about fifteen feet in. How could somebody be so ignorant? 30 years ago, this may have been the norm, but this junk appeared to have been discarded within the past couple years. We decided to leave it weighted down under a rock, hoping the next group packed lighter and could more easily carry it out. On the Gaskin side, which was more spacious but equally rocky, we had our first break. Halfway through the double-portage, the guys put their shoes back on – a relief to them, a morale-booster. We sat down, listened to music, and ate. It’s amazing how much food can improve the mood. In planning, I misjudged how many lakes and portages we’d be able to do before tiring. Sore, we felt jubilant, rejuvenated. We had come so far and we only had one more portage to get to Winchell. We smoked and got on the lake.
GASKIN Gaskin was beautiful. Our break made Gaskin beautiful. It was dreamy, but short-lived. Hit by the wind, we were on the treadmill again, moving in slow motion past cliffy islands. Two of us were inexperienced, so the wind made me panicky. I yelled, “Keep an eye out for the fourth bay on the left!” We found it, and the trees on its side blocked it from the wind. We were relieved. Only one more portage. The GASKIN TO WINCHELL PORTAGE was rough. The Gaskin side landing was mucky. The first group we had encountered had told us that although this portage was short, it was difficult because it was straight up and straight down. I’d rate it a 4-5/10. It really wasn’t terrible. As far as maintenance goes, it was probably a 4/5, simply because the Gaskin landing was mucky and had little room. When we got to the Winchell landing I was stunned. The Southern Shore was a wall of trees that went up 200 feet or more. Further down was a burn area which I had read about. I imagined it to be a baby burn from too many years ago to tell the difference. Instead, it was magnificent: a wall of dark green which abruptly became a wall of bight fluorescent green, with white aspen and pine trunks, dead, poking over the horizon. I took pictures and the guys cracked jokes. Thanks to another wooden barricade, entering the lake was a breeze.
WINCHELL Winchell’s wind was worse than Horseshoe and Gaskin’s – and the waves had five miles to build to their current size. On my map, I had written down the average rating of each campsite. My intention was to get the 5-star site on the point, just before the portage to Omega. I dreamt of getting this site, but the wind was terrible. We stuck close to shore, a technique we happened to learn on Gaskin. The first site (a 2/5) was unoccupied and it sucked: Roots were everywhere. The second site (not yet rated on the website) was also unoccupied and rooty, but was burnt and un- shaded. Finally we got to a 4-star site. It had great landings, open tent- pads, trees to hang a tarp, a fire-grate with benches, and as a centerpiece – a majestic and humongous pine tree. The view, looking down the barrel of Winchell, provided different shades of green as each point was more distant than the other. We could see where the cliffs were, and all the way down to the end of the lake.
We were all wiped, and at first we moved slowly. Alex and I came up with a method of setting up the tarp, and we consulted my newly bought book on how to tie knots. Corey helped and again, Alex set up the tents. Mike didn’t do much because he was more exhausted and reported that he wasn’t feeling well. In an hour, camp looked beautiful. We started drinking the whiskey we had put into a 3-liter plastic water container. As night fell we began cooking our noodles and while the guys ate, I kept drinking. Eventually I ate, but I was already too drunk. One of our plates fell in the water and I went after it, lost my balance, and fell in. I instantly sobered up, but I was wet. My cigarettes and phone were ruined, put in a bag of rice to dry out. The guys put me to sleep – something I don’t remember doing. I didn’t get to oversee the process of hiding our food pack in the woods, or rigging it with a pot- and-pan alarm system. I wasted a whole night in the Boundary Waters – a night which I had been looking forward to for over a year. Once again I blacked out – a bad habit which has almost killed me, which I hoped to have out behind me, but hadn’t.
DAY 3 – Diarrhea, the Winchell cliffs, Disappointment, and My Second Accident
I woke up, hung over, to go pee in the lake. The tarp was flapping wildly in the wind and it was drizzling rain. It was all different shades of blue- grey, and dark - probably 5:30 in the morning. It was one of those surreal, desolate, hopeless moments.
I woke up a while later. Michael had been coming and going, and Corey was nowhere to be found (because he had slept in the storage tent). After checking to see if my phone worked, we congregated, and Mike admitted he was having diarrhea, which was not good. Snacking silently, Michael said he didn’t mean to ruin the trip, but that we had to go back to Poplar. This caused some tension: I was already upset that we weren’t camping on, or closer to, Omega. Eventually we decided that if it got worse, we’d head back the way we came and camp at the outfitter, or near it. Corey, Alex and I decided we’d brave the on-and-off rain and go fish in the bay next to us. It took us a while to get out the embarrassing disposable ponchos and onto the lake. A small waterfall’s sound gave away its location, and we paddled over to it to cast. It was part of a stream that emptied at the Gaskin portage where we had been the day before, and it ended up being beautiful. The forest was mature, open, and piney, with few branches. Orange-brown needles covered the floor, punctured here-and-there by the babbling stream. It was serene, and led to a small lake. We hung out and fished, and then went back to camp. As we landed our canoe we noticed plates in the water. They were left there by past residents, only 10 feet under the surface. A careless group left it for somebody else, like the people whose trash we had found in the woods at the portage just yesterday. This was disappointing, and I feel bad that we left it for the next group. I wanted to go to the Winchell cliffs, the Winchell waterfall, and Omega to see its cliffs. Many say that Omega is the most beautiful lake in the boundary waters, so I was disappointed when I found out we probably didn’t have time. It took us a long time to decide whether Mike would come with us or not. He wanted to come with, but he was too sick. I didn’t like leaving him, but I had to at least see the cliffs and waterfall. We promised to be back in 4-5 hours and headed out, into the wind.
Corey, Alex and I took turns paddling to the waterfall, and we were grateful that the sky was clearing up. A party of guys like us asked if we were going to the waterfall, so we decided to do the cliffs first. They towered above us as we rounded the point, looking for the best canoe landing. When we found the best landing, we hiked up the path of least resistance to a wall of granite, where there seemed to be a faded trail. Wherever the path of least resistance is, there is a trail. We scrambled up to a giant boulder which we sat on top of, ate and took pictures, but I wanted a better view of the lake. I knew from pictures that there was a better view. We hiked onward and I found the view I had seen in pictures, but Alex had an unquenchable desire to see the entire lake all at once. After a few rounds of, “Just fifty more feet,” we gave up and went back to the spot I had seen, which gave the best possible view. We hung out there for a good while, about 200 ft above the lake. At one point we saw 9 canoes on the lake. We then scrambled down a shortcut and I felt like marking it for future adventurers. We hiked along the wall of rock back to our canoe, and rode it to the waterfall. It was stepped, and bigger than I thought. We hung out and took pictures. Our hopes of having the wind push us back to camp were ruined: there was none.
When we got back, we failed at sneaking up on, and scaring Michael. He said he saw at least a dozen canoes, some which intruded on his privacy. He had read books, done some organizing, and seemed to be doing better. It was funny when he smacked Corey’s butt and said, redeeming himself, “That wasn’t gay. There was a mosquito on your ass.” Seeing that we only had a couple hours of sunlight, Alex and I decided to quickly canoe across the lake and climb up a steep wooded hill and then to the top of a cliff of exposed rock that we had been eyeing. It was in the burn area and we knew it would have an unobstructed view. We hurried across the lake and pulled our canoe up. It must have been a half-mile of steep, dense woods which must have been prime moose territory, because we saw at least twenty piles of moose scat. We came to a brushy plateau and were disappointed when we saw that the cliff was still far away – maybe 1000 feet. We walked like it was Central Park in New York, instead of thick forest in the Boundary Waters. We came on a section of baby trees and brush that was so thick we could only see ten feet ahead. Legs scraped, we pushed through until we saw the cliff of red rock. Although the climb didn’t require ropes, a fall would have meant certain injury, as it was almost straight up, and located far from any hospital and was barely within a distance where we could yell to canoers on the lake below. Finding the canoe after dark would be nearly impossible, and the sun was going down fast. Nevertheless, we were excited to be out of the treacherous woods. Aiding each other, we smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the amazing view from the top. I could see tall hills some 20-30 miles away, perhaps the ones on the border (like Rat Bluff on Rose Lake). We Central Parked the whole way down and ended up only 50 feet away from where we had left the canoe. When we got back we bathed and cooked and got drunk. I promised to not get drunk, but did anyway. We listened to music and had fun as the sky got dark. At about midnight we saw a group that was still out looking for a campsite. We yelled and offered to share our space, but they declined. In the morning we saw them camping on a big rock by shore. They ended up camping on a huge flat rock by shore, and it made us grateful to have a cozy campsite. As the lake’s ripples faded into glass, it struck me that this enormous lake was completely still. Attempting to take a picture of the stars, I dropped my camera and tripod into the water. I went to sleep, once again missing the nighttime rituals I had missed the night before.
DAY 4 – Heading to Our Final Campsite Corey was awake and up when I stepped out of the tent, hung-over again. While the guys snacked I went to go wash my hands in the lake and found myself alone, and an extreme sadness hit me. I tried to hold back my tears and looked forward to being alone, when I could really let it all out. I missed my girlfriend more than ever. I realized that I had ruined both my phone and my camera, and had missed another good night in the Boundary Waters. My habit continued: The second night in a row. We calmly and quietly packed everything up, taking our time. I tried to convince the guys to finish the loop by going through Omega, but it would have been too much. We went back the way we came and saw the same sights. At least, I thought, I could make a more detailed report of the portages. We were being followed by a large group who was hoping to get a site on Horseshoe. We were hoping for a site even closer, on Caribou. Horseshoe was full, and so was Carabou. We decided to cut our journey short by camping at Poplar. On Liz, our favorite lake, we stopped on the island. We ate, fished, and I went skinny dipping. When we realized that it was officially outside of the Boundary Waters, we were tempted to camp on it, but with only one more portage to go, we decided to get back to the outfitter. We portaged to Poplar and canoed to the outfitter. It was strange seeing Hispanic children running around and smelling the fish fry at the outfitter. It felt like we were back in it, back to society. We threw all of our packs into the truck and sat outside the outfitter, waiting for somebody to help us. A gruff looking fat man with an eye-patch silently passed us and entered the outfitter. We all looked at each other, quietly agreeing that we just had an awkward moment: That we had just seen one of the wildest men in the north. We finally contacted the outfitter and got everything squared away. Deciding to sleep in the truck’s cab and on its bed, we returned the tent we had rented, and when we passed the outfitter there was that man with the eye patch, cooking fish in the fry pan outside. He yelled at us, “COME OVER HERE! Eat what’s left, FUCK THE REST, they already ate! Here, DIG IN!” We laughed, happy that he was sharing. He didn’t seem to care what we thought of him, no matter how embarrassing we thought he was. He explained, shouting, “It’s walleye wrapped in bacon! Best shit ever. FUCK everybody inside.” He then paused and became silent while we chewed, uttering small thanks through mouthfuls of the stuff. He then yelled – screamed – “WALLEYE BALLS!” It was hysterical. We all chuckled.
We decided it would be nice to get some real food and to drink, so we asked where a nice bar was. Luckily we were pointed in the direction of Windigo, a campy little bar which made no attempt at being north-woodsy, and whose interior looked no different from any cheap bar in a suburb of the cities. Techno played, while manly men cursed and barked orders at the waitress, a bashful and accented Eastern European with bushy black eyebrows. We all got drinks and a meal, and talked with a volunteer out on the deck as the sun went down. When we talked about the missing man, he agreed that at least he died while doing something he loved – picking blueberries. He was drunker than we were, had been in the Forest Service and claimed to have surveyed the land for half of the roads going out of the Gunflint Trail. He griped about his old job, wished he had a high paying city job that would allow himself to “just visit” the north woods every once in a while. He excitedly told us stories of close calls with moose and bear until his drunken friends dragged him away. We bought a 12-pack of beer and I stole a small bottle of whiskey. We drank and I called my girlfriend who didn’t answer. We listened to music in the car, got tired and got bad sleep. Corey had to drive when we woke up at six thirty, and he had only gotten 2 hours of sleep.
DAY 5 – The Ride Home
That morning was the only time the bugs were bad for the whole trip. We hadn’t once used the compass. We ate “The World’s Best Donuts” in Grand Marais and looked out at the flat horizon. Seagulls sounded strange, and the lake appeared to be endless and it swelled up and down like the ocean. Greys and pinks lit up the sky. The drive home was nice. We kept Corey’s mind busy by talking. We stopped at Gooseberry Falls and climbed around, and then rode all the way to Minneapolis. It was a nice trip, and my friends said they would certainly return. A couple days later I learned that the missing man was found on the day that we had left, only a mile from where he parked his truck, and I’m happy the family can now rest.