BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 30 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1865 feet
Skipper & Portage Lakes - 49
2009 Portage Lake
June 08, 2009
Skipper and Portage Lakes
Number of Days:
Jim arrived at my house at 8:30 am. We loaded my Sawyer Autumn Mist (solo canoe), packed up my stuff, and were on the road by 9:00am. Jim had his Bell Magic. This was a two solos trip. The day was overcast and about 50 degrees – good driving weather.
We made Eau Claire by 10:30 and were to our regular stop at Veterans’ Rest Area just outside of Spooner on mile marker 162 at 11:45am. We saw a lone wolf along side the road about 10 minutes north of Trego. Very cool! At 1:00 pm we were eating lunch at Subway in Superior.
We hit a detour going across the bridge that took us through some nice neighborhoods in Duluth. Somehow we lost the detour route so just worked our way downhill until we reconnected with highway 61. We reached the Tofte Ranger Station at 3:30, watched the video, and picked up our permit. After a quick stop in Grand Marais to top off the gas tank and grab a pop, we drove up the Gunflint Trail.
We made it to Flour Lake campground by 5:00 pm. -- pretty good time – eight hours including rest stop, gas stops, a detour, lunch, and picking up the permit. We selected site #20, which we found out later was the most popular site at the campground. It is a very nice campground with many of the sites having a path leading to the lake. Ours was one. This would be a great campground for a vacation if you didn’t want the rigors of the BWCA. Flour Lake looked like a nice lake to fish and explore.
We were completely set up, having a beer (Spotted Cow), and cooking supper by 6:00 pm. Supper was steak, potatoes, green Jello with pineapple (our salad), and rhubarb cake.
Jim met Tom, the campground host, and invited him to our site. He knew the area pretty well so we pulled out our maps and discussed our plans. Tom suggested that we use the lesser-used Portage Lake Entry rather than Skipper Lake (either can be used with the same permit). Instead of putting in at Poplar Lake we would put-in at Iron Lake. Jim and I agreed that would be our plan for the morning.
Mosquitoes came out for a few minutes but they disappeared when it cooled down. We had a very small campfire for a very short time. Looking back on it, it was the only fire we had the entire trip.
Animals that I recorded for the day: wolf, woodchuck, snowshoe hare, chipmunk, and red (pine) squirrel.
The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 52 and the low 39.
Camp breakfast was bacon & eggs. We packed up, left the site about 8:00am and made our way to the Iron Lake Campground. It was hit by the Ham Lake Fire last year. Nearly the entire campground was burned. Only campsite #7 was missed. The up side was the campground has a new, very nice outhouse and a new well.
We unloaded at the put-in, parked the car, and prepared to launch. When I looked up, I saw a bull moose 30 yards away standing in the narrow channel leading to the lake. We watched him for awhile and he didn’t seem bothered by us at all. We decided to paddle past him to get our trip started. We watched him closely but he was as docile as could be and let us pass without flinching.
We started paddling about 9:30 a.m. The wind was blowing brusquely from the east, which is uncommon, and we were paddling right into it, which is not. At 11:00 a.m., just before we reached the portage to Portage Lake, we saw a cow moose and three calves cross the lake. I never have seen a cow moose with three calves before!
We shared the portage with a family from Springfield Missouri and their local guide. They were going to Portage Lake to fish for splake. The 32 rod portage was an easy up-and-over for us but the other group portaged 2 boats and motors. Jim and I waited for them to launch.
The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 52 and the low 45. The day was overcast, windy, and drippy. We paddled a very windy Portage Lake to the 230 rod portage to One Island Lake. This was a very tough portage! The trail was up-and-down, but worse was that it had no maintenance and there were large trees blocking the trail at 5 different places. Three of those necessitated putting down the canoe, crawling over the downfall and then pulling the canoe over. That was exhausting work.
Approximately halfway across there is a service road that intersects the portage. After that point the trail got easier. Up until then we were outside the BWCA. It seems that maintenance crews use the road and then clear the trail to the BWCA, but neglect the portion outside the BWCA. The campground host at Flour Lake told us about this road but we opted not to use it. We were there to canoe and portage. Besides, we didn’t know how hard it would be to find and the host told use we probably needed a high-clearance vehicle to drive the road, which we didn’t have.
One Island Lake is nice enough. It is the first lake within the BWCA on this route, but there are no campsites on the lake. We found the portage to Rush Lake located in a burned area on the south end of the lake. The portage is suppose to be 60 rods long but it sure seemed a lot longer – probably because I was so exhausted. It went up a hill, paralleled a bog, and ended in a mucky and flooded landing.
It had started to rain during the portage, the wind had picked up, and the temperature was in the forties. These were hyperthermia conditions. Jim and I paddled to the first campsite on Rush Lake to check it out. It would have been a great site for the summer – a nice, high, exposed point -- but it was too exposed for the current conditions. The wind from the east was really hitting this site. We needed something more protected. We checked the map and decided that the southern site in the bay looked to be the most protected site on the lake.
We had to paddle across the wide part of the lake perpendicular to wind and waves to reach the site. Once there we discovered that the site was burned (as we later found out, it was the only burned site on the lake), but it was late (5:00 p.m.) and we needed to stop. We were wet, cold, and tired. I don’t think I could have gone further, so this was home for the night despite the poor condition of the site.
The immediate fire pit area was OK though there were no sitting logs. There were no trees to string a tarp and the exposed ground was mud in the original camping area. Back from this area there were burnt, down logs all over as well as burnt standing trees, and significant underbrush growing particularly raspberry bushes.
We had to move back a bit into the charred remains of the trees to hang the tarp. We pitched it to block the wind, piled our gear and ourselves under it, and made hot drinks and a hot supper on the stove. The hot food helped a lot … at least for a short time.
I think this was the worse shape I was ever in after the first day of a trip. Both Jim and I were still recovering from viruses and I had just finished with a bout of pneumonia. The site had nothing I would consider a tent pad, but I found a suitable place in front of the tarp to pitch my solo tent. Jim pitched his tent under the tarp. I began to shiver and knew I had to get warm and dry, so I went to bed at 8:00 p.m. Once I got my wet things off and into my sleeping bag I instantly felt better.
It rained off and on throughout the night, but my tent kept me perfectly dry and my 20 degree bag and Big Agnes mattress kept me warm and comfortable.
I woke up early but didn’t want to get up. I stayed in bed relaxing, reading, and cat-napping until 9:00 a.m. I guess I needed the rest. Outside of the tent everything was wet. The thought of going out into it was not pleasant, but I screwed up my courage and forged ahead.
We had a simple hot breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate and then made a game plan. We decided even though this was a burned area, we could make the site work. Even though we were feeling much better, neither of us felt up to moving camp, so this would be our base camp. Camping in a burn area, we rationalized, would be an experience we could brag about. We spent some time reorganizing and resetting camp, and then planned a daytrip heading east.
We paddled east on Rush Lake with just essentials – water, lunch, rain gear, etc. – to find the portage to Little Rush Lake. The portage was bad. It was flooded and more like wading down a small stream. The rocks the water was flowing over were slippery. Halfway across the portage there was a large tree to climb over. It was about shoulder high and you couldn’t go under it or around it. It was challenging to get over it and then pull the canoe over.
Despite the portage getting to it, Little Rush Lake was pretty. It was quite a contrast seeing that the north side of Little Rush was burned, but the south shore was not.
We continued east towards Skipper Lake but we could not find the portage. Tom, the campground host at Flour Lake, told us that the stream connecting the lakes could be paddled in high water. Since our last portage was flooded we thought maybe the water was high enough. Besides we could not find the portage. So we paddled the stream. We bottomed out a lot and created numerous new scratches on our hulls while picking our way through a rock garden. And this was in solo canoes which draw a lot less water than a tandem canoe. The water would have to be significantly higher for a tandem to make it through without bottoming out.
Skipper was a nice lake. The campsite on Skipper, however, was unimpressive. The landing was not good and the fire grate was very high and not level. We ate our lunch there and the sun came out a bit while we were there. It felt good.
Making our way back to Rush Lake, going the other direction, we were able to find the portage from Skipper to Little Rush. We took it to avoid paddling the rock garden again and to see where it came out on the other side. The portage was OK until the end. The Little Rush Lake end was blocked by a large down tree right at the water’s edge. No wonder we couldn’t see the portage on the Little Rush side! We had to wade through muck as a detour in order to get to the lake. It was probably going to take a NFS crew to clear that blowdown.
The portage from Little Rush to Rush was much easier going in this direction. The tree was easier to get over and the footing better.
Once back at our base camp, I turned Jim onto vodka lemonade. He never had it before. He liked it.
Jim commented at camp that we had no chipmunks, squirrels, or mice at this site. We figured that they hadn’t yet repopulated the area after the fire. Jim also had some welts on his neck by the collar line. He told me he got them after paddling through a swarm of gnats. I think those gnats were black flies.
Nice evening tonight. The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 55 and the low 45. It was cool but no rain. No bugs. We did not have a campfire.
It rained off and on throughout the night, though it was done by 8:00 a.m. That’s when I got up. Jim made pancakes for breakfast.
Today it was slightly windy and very cloudy though the sun did poke out occasionally. I made a note in my journal to bring along a small daypack for the day trips. I have been taking my barrel out of the pack I carry it in and using the pack as a daypack. It must have been an issue. I don’t remember why, but that is why I write notes in my journal. I know it is hard to get the barrel out and the canvas bag is a little heavy. So I need to add to my list a small, packable, empty daypack for daytrip use.
For today’s daytrip we headed to Banadad Lake and checked out the other campsites on Rush. The northwest site on Rush was OK, though the landing was not good and the fire pit was too close to the water. There were two decent tent pads. The northeast site was slightly better. This is the one we checked out first on Monday and decided not to take it because it was too windy.
The portage to Banadad was very sloppy, nearly muck. It also has a small bridge which looks worse than it is. It is part of the Banadad Cross Country Ski Trail. You do need to look out for exposed nails on the bridge and loose boards.
The landing on the Banadad side is tough for a solo canoe. The opening is narrow and the water is deep – very difficult to get the canoe parallel to shore to enter/exit. There was also a tree blocking the portage. I’m sure it is cleared by now. We would have cleared it but did not have the saw with us.
We had lunch at the first site we came to, the furthest northeast. The site was nice enough – one tent pad, an OK fire pit, and an OK landing. Banadad Lake is a beautiful lake – narrow and long.
Once back to Rush Lake we checked out the final campsite on the lake, in the peninsula bay. It had a very nice landing, and nice fire grate, but no tent pads that we could find. There also were no sitting logs. In fact, most of the sites we checked out in this area either did not have sitting logs or had a single, unsupported, small one. What’s that about? I’m not complaining because Jim and I bring chairs, but I did find it unusual.
There seemed to be a lot of moose activity through that site. I don’t know where you’d pitch a tent, but I would not recommend pitching it on the trail. I’d be afraid of being trampled by a moose.
Back at base camp we had another vodka lemonade cocktail hour complete with bar snacks of sesame sticks, M&Ms, and almonds. Jim likes Happy Hour.
We had very nice weather, just slightly cool. It was mostly cloudy, but the sun did peak out occasionally. There was a bit of wind but it was mostly mild. The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 60 and the low 42.
We are actually enjoying this site now that we are settled in. Again we did not have a fire even though yesterday I gathered and stacked a nice amount of wood. We are getting into the rhythm of things. Jim was off to bed at 9:00 p.m. I was off to bed at 9:30 even though it was not quite dark.
I woke to sunshine! However, it didn’t last long. It clouded up and got breezy a half-hour later.
A chipmunk showed up at the fire grate – our first camp critter of the trip -- but it left and did not come back after I yelled at it. It must not yet be habituated to people and camp life.
Also a cow moose crossed the bay by the campsite and hung around for a little bit. That makes 5 moose spotted on this trip, though the first four were technically outside the BWCA.
It was quite the morning for wildlife. In addition to the chipmunk and moose, two otters swam up to the campsite and climbed out close to the fire grate. It looked as if they were coming up to see what they could rob from us. They immediately dove back in when they became aware of me. They did swim around the campsite for a bit, so I got to enjoy them a little longer and snap a couple of photos.
Last night I had a couple critters poking around my tent. They were way too small to be bears and too big to be rabbits. They seemed to be raccoon-size, but I have never seen a raccoon in the BWCA. This got me wondering if it may have been the two otters.
I relaxed around camp, read a little, and canoed around the area. I checked out the little stream by the campsite, the area the moose came from. Jim checked out the spring that was coming out of the hillside across from our camp and I followed his lead. I couldn’t get a good look at where it actually came out but could see the brook it formed.
After that Jim and I went on a little fishing expedition. Our goal was to catch enough for dinner. Jim trolled along in his Bell Magic. I paddled to an island that had some small boulders leading up to it. It looked like a smallmouth bass place to me and I was right. I caught a decent one on the first cast (a spinner jig with a white twister tail). Neither Jim nor I could bring in another from this spot, so we moved to another nearby island. It took several casts this time, but I caught another smallmouth – the same size as the first. I filleted them right there and we took them back to camp for a fish fry. This was our laziest day of the trip though we still had some activity to fill our day. The weather was nice. The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 59 and the low 38. It seemed a bit nicer than that.
We decided to head out today. It took us so long to come in, and we expected it to take us as long to exit. If we were to break camp on Saturday we would be very tired driving home after a long, strenuous day getting out, and we get home very late. So the plan was to exit today, camp at Iron Lake Campground, and be fresh for our drive home Saturday.
A fast oatmeal and hot chocolate breakfast, break camp, and were on the water by 8:15. It was a nice day and we had no rain while we were traveling. The portages didn’t seem as bad going this way even though they were now predominately uphill. Perhaps it was because the weather was better, we were more used to it, or we were better recovered from our illnesses, but most likely it was a combination of all of that.
We met two people on the portage from Rush Lake to One Island Lake. These were the first people we had seen since the Missouri family on our way in. One was a NFS ranger. Jim tells me that the ranger was a quite attractive, young, blond woman with a great smile. I didn’t notice. I know that they didn’t ask to check our permit.
After One Island Lake, on the killer portage to Portage Lake, we met two more people, a brother and sister – I’m guessing very early 20s. It was her first BWCA trip. I good naturedly told the woman that she had a mean brother to take her on such a tough portage for her first trip. She seemed ready for the adventure though. We told them about the portages to Banadad, their first night destination.
When we crossed the logging road halfway up the portage, we saw the NFS truck parked there. Those rangers we saw earlier were no dummies. They cut the portage in half; in fact we thought they cut off the hardest half. However, once we continued on we realized that while we were in a crew had been through cutting out the deadfalls. This portage was now much, much easier than when we went in.
The wind, of course, was now out of the west, the direction we were paddling. Typical! We paddled into the wind going in and coming out. Still we made it to the take out at 2:30 pm. Coming out was much easier and faster than we expected.
We were able to get campsite #7, the only unburned campsite at Iron Lake Campground. There was only one other group at the campground. Why they opted for a burnt site rather than this one, I don’t know. Of course, Jim and I opted for a burnt site on Rush Lake when we could have had any site on the lake – all of the others not burnt.
Luckily we decided to string a tarp because it started to rain at 3:30. Fortunately it stopped by 5:00 pm.
We had supper and then decided to take a walk around the small campground. Who would have thunk it, but when we got back to the put-in spot, there was the bull moose again. It was same moose at the same spot as when we launched at the beginning of our trip. A van of spectators was there from one of the lodges, presumably on a moose tour. It must be this moose’s regular hang out. It certainly seemed like the driver knew where to look.
It was a good day: raining only after we got to the campground and had the tarp strung; getting out faster and easier than expected; seeing a bull moose; getting a good campsite at a quiet campground, etc. The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 64 and the low 41.
We were to bed by 10:00.
We were up at 5:00am. Jim was up and moving thinking it was later than it actually was. He made a pancake breakfast, and we left the campground at 6:30. Just for a change we decided to go down the Old Gunflint Trail. We checked out the Poplar Lake put-in, the one we originally planned to use. It certainly was used more then the Iron Lake access – large parking lot and pretty full.
We also checked out the NFS road that intersects the Portage Lake to One Island Lake portage – ie the road that could cut the portage in half and where we saw the NFS truck parked. We only saw where it started and didn’t drive down it, but it did look to be drivable with a regular vehicle. It looked drivable where the portage intersected it, too, but who knows what the rest of the road was like. Maybe there were bad spots or stream crossings that could be seen from those two points.
We saw two deer on the Old Gunflint Trail. We added them to our list of critters seen on the trip: Deer Wolf Woodchuck Snowshoe Hare Chipmunk Red (pine) Squirrel Humming Birds Loons Cedar Wax Wings Robins White Throated Sparrows Wood Thrush Black and White Warblers American Redstart Song Sparrows Canadian Geese Herring Gulls Mallards Ruffed Grouse Moose Otters And probably more
We linked back up with the “new” Gunflint Trail, made our way to Grand Marais, and continued on to Duluth where we stopped for gas at 9:45 a.m.
At 12:30 p.m. we stopped at the DQ in Eau Claire, WI for lunch. After we ate, Jim went out to the car and I was a minute behind him. When I came out Jim was in a conversation with some guy. Apparently he saw the canoes on the car, asked where we were and if we caught any fish, and Jim told him we had caught a couple smallmouth bass.
This is what I heard the fellow say as I walked up to them: “Smallmouth bass? I’ll tell ya where ta catch smallmouth bass!! You drive to Canada and take a left. Then you’ll come to a lake. I don’t remember the name of the lake, but you can’t miss it. There is a boat launch right there and some kind of resort. Well, you go out to the island … not this side of the island, but the other side …. And you can catch smallmouth bass there all day long, … at least ya could one day we were there. The other day nothin’! You can use anything for bait, too. Doesn’t matter what. They’ll hit anything …. and if they don’t try something else. If they still don’t you can go to the other side of the lake and fish for largemouth. They’re by the weeds. …. Yep just across the border and take a left.”
We thanked him for the tip.
The Sawbill Outfitter’s website said that the high temperature for the day was 68 and the low 50. The sun came out, too. The nicest day of the trip and we were in a car driving.
Jim dropped me at home at 3:30pm. I think that is the earliest I ever got home from a trip to the BWCA.