BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1865 feet
Skipper & Portage Lakes - 49
Frost River Loop Via EP50--Cross Bay Lake--Solo
May 17, 2018
Cross Bay Lake
Number of Days:
After spending a relaxing and restful evening in the comfortable bunkhouse at Rockwood Lodge, I drove the fifteen miles up the Gunflint Trail to the entry point. Gorgeous morning. 29 degrees and calm, not a cloud in the sky. I loaded my rented Northstar Magic solo canoe with my CCS Pioneer and Bushcrafter packs, secured my extra paddle and fishing pole to the gunwales with BDB's, grabbed my handheld gear (camera, binocs, maps, etc.) which I keep in a clear waterproof tote bag, and quietly pushed away from the landing at 6:30 am. I had been looking forward to this journey for months, and all of my careful planning was now exposed to the reality of the trip. Yes!
I planned to make it to Frost by mid afternoon. My route would take me down through Ham, Cross Bay, Rib, Lower George, Karl, Long Island, Gordon, Unload, and into Frost. With double portaging, Paddle Planner pegs this portion of the trip at 12.4 miles.
The weather held for most of the day, and the traveling went as planned. I ran into a couple of forest rangers while only a couple hours into my trip, paddling through Karl. I showed them my credentials (I keep my permit, ID, and fishing license in the same waterproof box as my InReach) and chatted with them about how much I appreciate the work they do to protect this great wilderness. I also remarked to them about how I think being on a "canoe trip" for work seems like the ultimate job, but I'm sure it's not all roses and honey. As I paddled and portaged on, I quietly achieved a personal milestone as I entered Long Island and plopped my canoe down on the sandy beach at the end of the portage. I had now entered Long Island from all three of the possible directions over the years. I patted myself on the back and moved on. I ran into three guys pulling over the beaver dam a short ways up the Long Island River and they mentioned how they had to change their trip plan because Brule still had solid ice on the western end. Weird year. It should be noted that the Voyageur map is missing a portage along here, where the river narrows prior to turning into Gordon there is a pretty good set of rapids. I believe the Fischer map has it at 28 rods. I knew about this from previous trips, so no surprise. The toughest portage on my entire route for the day was the 138 rod trek into Unload from Gordon, and that portage isn't bad at all. A tad muddy, but not bad. After paddling across the tiny Unload lake, one does encounter a pretty decent beaver dam that requires pulling over rather than paddling over. Once through with that, I was in Frost by 2:30. Plenty of day left to explore this pretty lake, but the wind was now coming up and the clouds were gathering to the west, so I figured I should get into a campsite. Had this been a summer trip I would have taken one of the sites with the sand beach, but since I had a big day of travel planned for the next day I chose the campsite on the west side of the lake nearest to the portage, #878. Not the best campsite on the lake, but ample for me. I proceeded to enjoy the rest of the day hanging around camp and playing with my camping gear. It rained a little bit in the evening, but not much.
As I lay in my tent, a sliver of doubt passed through my mind. I had never traversed the Frost River before, and felt slightly intimidated. The two rangers I had run into earlier in the day were curious about the river as they said they had never seen the water levels as low as they were at this time of the year. I didn't talk myself out of continuing with my planned route, thankfully.
I like to get up early when I travel by canoe. Like 4:30 early. I like to be in my canoe and on the water by 6:30 or 7:00 each day (unless I'm up there in September, then it's still dark!). It is usually the nicest time of the day in my opinion. I goofed around camp while packing my gear and drinking coffee. The days travels would bring me into a part of the BWCA which I had never been, and my previous night's doubt turned back into wide-eyed anticipation. My goal was to make it to Mora, with the possibility of stopping at Afton or Whipped if need be. 13 miles. A good stretch for me for one day.
What I ended up experiencing on this day can be described as nothing short of epic. What an incredibly gorgeous and wild area to have the privilege of witnessing with my own eyes! I never saw another person (for 42 hours actually) all day, and was only occasionally reminded that other people had been through here by the shiny glint of aluminum or the tell-tale sign of green gel coat on rocks barely beneath the surface of the water. I tried to imagine carrying an aluminum canoe through here rather than the 29 pound beast I was hauling around. The weather was beautiful all day, lots of little portages, and plenty of water to navigate through. Most of the beaver dams (a dozen-plus) were the kind you could paddle right over, with only a couple requiring the removal of gear from the boat in order to get over.
I did run into a little trouble on the west end of Pencil lake. The portage out of that lake is marked wrong on both the Voyageur and Fischer maps, as they both show it on the right (north) side of the lake. I spent a good twenty minutes looking for it before I found it on the other side of the lake, and literally two feet from the top of the descending rapids. I became a little rattled by this, but still had my eyes on Mora for the day's destination. Paddling by both the Afton and Whipped campsites, I'm glad I was still on schedule to make it through. They were both of the variety where you could stay for the night if you needed to, but not necessarily desirable sites. It should also be noted that the little (20 rod) portage between Afton and Fente totally lives up to it's reputation. I thought it was extremely steep and treacherous going up, until I made it to the top and started heading down the back side and finding out what steep and treacherous really means. I lived to tell about it....but just barely.
I made it to Mora, and I'm glad I did. Nice little lake. Mora is the tale of two lakes, as a good part of the northern and western side are burnt to a crisp. I believe I had the only good campsite on the lake, #527. I unloaded my gear, set up camp, and had a chance to appreciate that which I had just accomplished. It was certainly a personal victory for me to tackle that Frost River route which I had heard so much about. I passed through Octopus, Chase, Pencil, Afton, Fente, Whipped, and of course miles of the Frost River, before ending the day at Mora.
Later Friday night it started raining. A nice steady rain pelted my tent, soothing me to sleep. No worries, as all of my painstaking efforts to pack my gear in waterproof bags inside of waterproof bags would certainly pay off in wet weather conditions. Saturday morning found me drinking coffee while wearing full rain gear and hanging out under my tarp. I waited for a break in the rain, then struck my tent and packed my bags. Today was going to be just a short journey over to Tuscarora. Three hours maybe. I wanted to get to Tuscarora early to get a good site and to spend a fair amount of time chasing Lake Trout around, hopefully catching at least one eater-sized fish. I took my time traveling through the rain, and took a little journey around the burned areas of both Mora and Crooked. That Crooked looked like a neat lake too, with an identity problem. Parts were beautiful, parts were charred to a crisp. There is something eerie to me about the burned areas on a rainy day, and especially the burned campsites. It's almost like they have ghosts of some sort. I first experienced this phenomenon while on a trip with my brother a few years back up through the Kawasachong and Polly area north of the Kawishiwi entry point. I should mention that the portage into Crooked from Tarry has no real canoe landing area, but is rather just a field of boulders. Tricky. So....the rain was one thing, but I haven't mentioned the 25 mph north wind yet. I was beginning to become concerned about this, since Tuscarora was going to be the biggest water traveled on this trip. When I arrived I was immediately greeted at the portage by foot-high waves with white caps. Hmm...Maybe I'll just make it to the campsite right by the portage and wait it out before making my next plan. Oh, and did I mention that I hadn't seen a person in 42 hours? Well, that campsite was taken. As I approached, a fella invited me to join he and his friends to warm up and such, but I politely declined. I couldn't make it to the north side of the lake, as the wind was blowing too strong. I decided to travel the length of the lake while hugging the south shore. I stayed just 20 to 30 feet from shore, except in a couple of spots where the waves were crashing off of rocks and creating a "double wave" effect. It was slow going, but thanks to the awesome performance of the Northstar Magic I was paddling I was never in much fear of going over. Each campsite I passed (I believe there are only 3 on the south side) was occupied. I guess everybody else wanted to catch some trout too. Did I mention that I hadn't seen a person in 42 hours? Oh well. I trudged on. My three hour travel day just became a lot longer, as I made the decision to make it to Snipe and stay "small water" on a "big wind" sort of day. I was a little disappointed about the lost fishing opportunity, but overall happy with my decision to stay on the move. That much wind makes sitting in a campsite miserable, unless you're just going to lay in your tent and read, so my vagabond spirit took over and I continued on my way. I took the 255 rod portage out of the southeast corner of Tuscarora and left that mess behind me.
That big portage was plenty long, but otherwise not bad. It has that little break in the middle at Howl Lake, where you actually need to get in your canoe and paddle about a hundred feet to the other side. One of the best engineered beaver dams is right here, holding back a wall of water. Impressive work by those busy rodents.
By the time I got to Snipe I was ready to find the first campsite and get comfortable. I had planned to be done traveling for the day by noon. It was now 5:00. I get nervous whenever I'm looking for a campsite after about 3:00. I paddled by the first campsite at mid-lake. It was empty, so that was reassuring. I decided to paddle to the site on the west end of the lake, but on my way there I met a fella who was staying there. He said he regularly catches Northerns on Snipe, so I promised I'd wet a line too once I got settled into my site. I turned around and headed back to the site I had just paddled by, #555. It was nothing fancy, but plenty good for me. Shortly after unloading the canoe I looked up and noticed a pair of Golden Eagles circling above, looking for a meal. Striking in their size and grace, these are beautiful birds. I watched them for a while before they drifted out of sight and I got back to the tasks associated with setting up camp. I enjoyed a quiet evening, casting from shore for pike, catching and releasing couple of little ones. I actually had a campfire this night, as the rain early in the day had softened up the conditions some and the strong north wind had subsided. Since I had come this far, rather than stopping on Tuscarora, the remainder of my trip would be gravy, and I was really looking forward to spending Sunday morning exploring this pretty little lake. Who knows, I may even stay in the same site two nights in a row (gasp!).
I woke up cold, and reached for my jacket to drag it into my sleeping bag with me. It was nice to not have to get up early, and I slept in until 7:00. After having knocked off the extra miles the day before, I realized I was only 6 miles from the entry point. I had options, and lots of them! I goofed around camp, drinking coffee and cooking a hot breakfast of oatmeal and dried fruit. Actually had a morning campfire, which I never do. The temperature was in the low thirties, and frost covered some of my gear. Sometime around mid-morning I decided to go out exploring on beautiful Snipe. The narrows on the north side are absolutely incredible to paddle through and enjoy the awesome scenery of towering gabbro on both sides. The rocks on the south side had a neat red moss growing on them. I paddled up to the campsite at the north end of the lake and got out of the boat to explore. This one is a really nice campsite! I enjoyed a light lunch of PBJ tortillas and headed back to camp. Had my campsite been a little nicer I probably would have stayed a second night (I rarely do that) but instead decided to head over to the 4-star site (#558) on Cross Bay and see if it was occupied. I took my time, since I could afford that luxury and was able to really enjoy this beautiful Sunday afternoon in paradise. I was still a fair distance from that nice campsite when I could see through binoculars that it was sitting wide open, waiting for my arrival. What an awesome campsite! I'm not sure what it takes to become a 5-star site in the BW, but this one makes it on to a very short list of the best campsites I've ever stayed at in canoe country. The rock structure of this site goes on for miles, and it appears to be capable of (and maybe once was?) being two campsites in one. As a soloist I sometimes feel a little twinge of guilt whenever I get one of these campsites capable of holding a large group, but it quickly passes and I consider myself fortunate to be able to spend the night with such deluxe accommodations.
I had plenty of time to explore Cross Bay lake, and paddled over to the hidden waterfall for a closer look. It's not too hidden this time of year, as the deciduous foliage which normally masks it hasn't filled in yet.
I had gone since the previous afternoon without seeing anyone and was really enjoying the solitude when around the bend came a flotilla of four canoes carrying at least eight people. Loud people too! They clearly had their eyes on my campsite and were quite audible in their disappointment when they spotted my green tarp hanging over my dining area. So here's what kills me: this large group of people were still looking for a campsite at 7:00 pm. I always shake my head when I see something like that. And then, rather than turning back and heading less than half a mile to a known campsite (the other one on Cross Bay) they continue on to Rib, a lake with one campsite which may or may not be full. I guess each to his/her own, but it just seems too reckless to be seeking a site at that late hour. Especially for a group of 8 or 9. Hopefully they got the spot on Rib and aren't still out there paddling around aimlessly for eternity.
I awakened to my alarm at 4:30 on Monday after a restful night under the stars. Time to get up and moving. My goal was to be on the water by 6:30 and slowly make my way back to the entry point by about 9:30. The journey would only be 4.4 miles with just a couple of shorter portages, so I would have plenty of time to soak up the morning sunshine while plying the mirror-like surface of Cross Bay Lake and up into Ham. Pretty little stretch of the Cross River through here, with some nice little rapids along the way at the two portages. I had a beaver swimming alongside me for a while, and I tried to take his picture at the exact moment he slapped his tail on the water and slipped below the surface. When I got home and looked at the picture all I could see was a little ripple of water where he had dove. Too slow of a shutter speed! I arrived at the entry point on time, and loaded my gear into my truck. I stood on the forest service dock and enjoyed one last cup of coffee before traveling back to Rockwood. I vowed to come back to this same place, as this part of the BWCA definitely deserves to be further explored by me. I still need to catch a Lake Trout on Tuscarora! I pulled into Rockwood and was greeted by the two friendly faces of Mike and Carl, who are great canoe country hosts. These two guys really made me feel welcome and gave me as much, and more, attention as I needed. Rockwood is definitely a class act.
The compass story: I bought a little silva compass back in 1982, prior to my first trip to the Quetico with my Boy Scout troop. I've had that same compass for 36 years and it's been with me on every trip I've ever taken anywhere. This past winter I decided I should have two compasses, as it made sense to have a backup. So I bought a second silva compass and used it on this canoe trip while my trusty old compass waited in my portage pack in case it needed to be called into action. On the final morning of my trip I pushed away from the landing at the campsite and proceeded to fiddle around with my map and compass to get them situated properly in front of me, as I do each time I push away from a landing. It happened so fast that I barely caught a glimpse of the yellow lanyard on my new compass as it slipped off the map and fell into Cross Bay lake, sinking like a stone. I paddled back to shore and retrieved my old compass from storage, where it had been patiently waiting to be needed. I'm now a one-compass household again, as I had been for 36 years, and I also inadvertently Left A Trace.
This trip was 43.2 miles, according to Paddle Planner. Of this, 27.5 miles were spent paddling and 15.7 miles were spent portaging.
Along with several miles of the Frost River, my trip took me through 24 lakes: Ham, Cross Bay, Rib, Lower George, Karl, Long Island, Gordon, Unload, Frost, Octopus, Chase, Pencil, Afton, Fente, Whipped, Mora, Tarry, Crooked, Owl, Tuscarora, Howl, Hubbub, Copper, Snipe, and back through Cross Bay and Ham.
I used two Ursacks for food storage, after having used a BearVault500 for the past several years. They seem to be a quality product and the YouTube videos of bears trying to get into them are impressive. Plus, the Ursack gets smaller as it empties, unlike the canister method of food carrying.
I used a Helinox Cot Lite rather than an inflatable sleeping pad. What an amazing product! Super comfortable, ultralight, and user friendly. With temps as low as they were some nights I maybe should have had an insulated mat with as well, but I didn't freeze to death and rather am here to tell about it.
I tried some freeze-dried meals from Pack It Gourmet out of Austin, Texas. Excellent products, especially their Austintacious Tortilla Soup, Banana Pudding, and Poblano Corn Chowder.
I can't say enough good things about the Northstar Magic solo canoe. I've been using a Wenonah Prism for years, and I still feel this is a great canoe, but my canoe of choice is now the Magic.
Happy Paddling Everyone!