BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 10 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1865 feet
Skipper & Portage Lakes - 49
Escaping the 'Real World' - First Timers in BWCA
August 29, 2019
Cross Bay Lake
Lizz and Swamp Lakes (47)
Number of Days:
After an uneventful flight and successfully retrieving the luggage, we picked up the rental car and headed off to the hotel. Priceline turned up the AmericInn Bloomington, which was perfectly fine for one night. Given the late hour of our arrival and time change, we quickly drifted off to sleep. Wednesday morning awoke bright and sunny. Attempting to avoid rush hour in Minneapolis, it was a relaxed morning. We made a pit stop at a local grocery store to pick up most of our last minute provisions and found a Lands End Inlet for a couple non-trip items. Our shopping was curtailed when ran into a computer outage at another store and didn’t feel like waiting around for the cash registers to return to service.
With traffic dying down, we started our journey northwards. We quickly cruised up to Cloquet and made a pit stop at Gordy’s Hi-Hat for lunch. The onion rings and shakes were delish. Feeling totally stuffed and finally at vacation relaxation levels, we took the scenic route north out of Duluth heading on for Grand Marais.
Sadly, World’s Greatest Donuts was already sold out for the day, but we did manage to snag some boxed wine. Also picked up steaks for our first night’s dinner and Subway for breakfast/lunch the next day. Fully provisioned, we turned up the Gunflint Trail keeping an eye out for wildlife. Sadly, the only variety we saw was of the two-legged variety.
Upon arrival at Rockwood, we quickly got checked in and dropped our luggage in the bunkhouse. We’d reserved a partial outfitting package and Mike took great care ensuring we had everything we’d need for a successful trip. We got some advice on recommended campsites, current conditions reports, and some ideas on places we might want to see on our route. Fully loaded, we headed back up to the bunkhouse get everything packed for the morning. The weather had turned greyer, windier, and a bit damp as we headed north. Forecast for Thursday morning was also a bit drippy, so we made sure the leave the raingear out for the morning. Settled and repacked, we took a quick jaunt down to the Trail Center for dinner. Upon returning, we grabbed our last shower for a week and turned in for the night.
Just as we were about to turn into the parking lot at the entry point, Carl pointed out our one and only bear for the trip. It looked to be a yearling and was slowly making its way across the road. What a way to start the trip! Gear was quickly unloaded and got a quick lesson on the best ways to shoulder a Kevlar canoe. My previous experience was with an aluminum beast, so the Kevlar was a treat. With everything stowed in the canoe, it was one final wave to Carl and we were off on our adventure. Long Island Lake was our objective for the day.
It had been a couple years since we’d been canoeing, but the rhythm quickly came back. We glided silently through the water, moving faster than I’d anticipated. As a result, we totally missed the first portage. (Note to self, double check the map to determine how far you need to go *before* starting off next time!) We spent a bit of time trying to figure out where we were and eventually turned around. Heading the opposite direction, the portage was really easy to spot. Given where it was tucked, we quickly saw how we had missed it. It was tucked back in a nook and you needed to be looking for it.
Our gear consisted of two portage packs, a blue barrel, and a day bag. We opted to double portage with my husband taking the two portage packs and the day bag while I got the canoe and blue barrel. Once we got the straps on the packs dialed in, it was smooth sailing. Cruised on through to the next portage and started to meet a couple groups coming out. Most were decked out in full rain gear and commenting about how wet their trips had been. The sun was starting to play peek-a-boo at this point, so we were hopeful the rain was just about done. We quickly made it through Ham Lake and encountered our first other group going in. As it turns out, they were permitted for the day before but got windbound on Ham.
After another portage, we finally found ourselves crossing into BWCA. The trip down Cross Bay, Rib, and Lower George were uneventful. Mike had indicated that pretty much all of the sites on Long Island were good and we were planning on heading east eventually, so we opted to paddle down Karl instead of taking the portage into the western side of Long Island. The sun had mostly come out by this point, but it was still pretty breezy. As we came around the peninsula in the middle of Long Island, we got hit by the full force of the wind. After a long day of paddling (and getting those muscles used to paddling again), heading west was not really an option. So we headed east looking for an open camp site. First two we passed were occupied, but we found site 563 open and immediately snagged it. Our plan was to spend the next two nights here.
This is an island site facing west with a very easy place to load/unload the canoe. The fire grate is tucked a bit into the trees, but there’s a nice open area facing west/northwest to sit and watch the world go by. The site seems to hug the coastline with two trails running away from the main landing area leading to a few tent pad options. We located the trail to the thunderhead and opted to place our tent on that side of the site. The site was up on a small bluff, so our tent was fairly close to the water’s edge. Given the wind, there was also several really nice spots to park the canoe.
It was around 4pm when we got everything unpacked and set up. The rain was long gone, but the wind was still fairly strong. We set up our camping chairs and opted just to relax for a little bit. Although we had packed steaks for dinner the first night, I wasn’t feeling up to building a fire and having a large meal, so we switched things up. We’d also packed frozen breakfast sausage for the next morning and opted to have breakfast for dinner. Clouds had overtaken the sky, so there would be no star gazing that evening. The mad scramble to prep for vacation plus the full day of paddling caught up with us and we were soon off to bed.
The high winds driving the water onto shore made for some very interesting sounds during the night. Both of us swore that it sounded like people talking outside of our tent at various times. However, during the middle of the night, we both were awoken by the sound of a lone wolf howling. Never heard a response, but it was a beautiful sound and we felt lucky to hear the serenade. ~Ham Lake, Cross Bay Lake, Rib Lake, Lower George Lake, Long Island Lake
Given the wind, we decided a relaxed day in camp sounded like a good idea. Found a couple trees to hang the hammock and mainly spent the day soaking in the beauty of nature around us. Both of us have pretty hectic jobs, so being able to unplug and just be was a wonderful feeling. At least the sun was out so we could soak up the rays. Temps were in the low 60s, so it was a little cool for going swimming, particularly with the wind.
Around 3pm, the wind finally broke and a hushed silence overtook the area. It was amazing to realize how much “noise” the wind brought, particularly driving the water against the coastline. Only saw one canoe go past all day.
Dinner was a homemade dehydrated meal that turned out surprisingly well. Also figured out that a panful of cold lake water worked perfectly for chilling the no-bake cheesecake. The clear night sky led to a touch of stargazing, but soon the sleeping bags were calling. Our lone wolf was back again tonight, joined by a chorus of loons. With the wind down, it was a totally different experience as mother nature seemed to come alive. ~Long Island Lake
As we paddled around the island, we discovered we hadn’t been alone. Campsite 564 occupies the east side of the island and there were a couple folks and their dog enjoying the morning sun and a cup of coffee. Didn’t even realize they’d been there!
Trip through the east side of Long Island moved swiftly and we soon found ourselves at the rock garden leading to Muskeg. Given the pictures on this site, the portage was fairly easy to identify. We gingerly made our way over the rocks and loaded the canoe using the beaver dam on the other side. Thankfully, it had been dry for the last couple of days, so the rocks weren’t too slippery. We then wove our way through the grass heading towards Muskeg. There were a number of beautiful waterlilies that I wish I would have stopped for a photo of. Kept thinking we’d see more later, but that turned out not to be the case.
Up next was “the wall” over to Kiskadinna. Doing most of our hiking/backpacking in the Appalachians, a 150’ elevation gain isn’t that bad. (We routinely do 1000’ in a single hike.) It also helped that we’d gotten our portaging rhythm down, knowing who was grabbing what each trip. However, there were a few spots were it was a little tricky trying to not bury the prow of the canoe in the hill! After a quick lunch stop at the end of the portage, it was a beautiful cruise down Kiskadinna. Just a beautiful lake with the trees reflecting on the water on both sides. We encountered a couple loons that kept us entertained as we slowly glided along.
Before long, we hit the portage to Omega. To me, this was a more challenging portage, especially the start. Due to the steepness of the grade, you essentially need to climb sideways. However, it’s a fairly short up and over. We soon found ourselves paddling down Omega.
Given that this was Labor Day weekend, I’d been a bit concerned about finding an open campsite on Omega since there are only four 592 was our goal as that site had been recommended as the best site on the lake. I shouldn’t have worried. We first cruised by 2012 and that looked to be a lovely site with a nice south/southeast face. So we knew that one was open as our fallback. As we continued down Omega, we discovered that 592 was available, so we made a beeline to claim it. The only issue with this site is trying to find the pull in initially. On the map, the site is shown on the east side of the peninsula. In reality, the site is on the very tip and the pull in is just around to the west. Took ~10 min of hunting to finally find the pull in, but the good site was ours!
I can see why this site is so popular. Once located, the pull in is really easy as there’s a shallow ledge. The fire grate is at the end of the peninsula up on a little bluff and there are stunning views north and west. We had our choice of tent pads and quickly got settled as this would once again be home for two nights. There are a number of trails running through this site, so we strolled around a bit to see where everything went.
After some strolling and relaxing, we did another homemade dehydrated meal topped off with no-bake cheesecake. We were treated to a beautiful sunset and once again did a touch of stargazing before the siren song of the sleeping bag began. Just a lovely day. Sunny, light breeze, low 60s.
~Long Island Lake, Muskeg Lake, Kiskadinna Lake, Omega Lake
The plan for today was to head over to Winchell to see the cliffs. We ran into another group on the portage. Apparently the group before us had seen both a moose and a bear on the trail. No such luck for us, but the portage was a real treat after the previous day. We cruised around the northern finger of Winchell, being entertained by another loon. When we got down to the main body of the lake, the wind was up again. Without all of the gear in the canoe, it felt a bit unstable and we quickly agreed that a short trip on Winchell would be about it. Got to see the cliffs and then headed back to the shelter of the northern finger. Puttered around there again before taking the portage back to Omega.
We then opted to do a loop of Omega. Figured out where our portage was for the next day and otherwise just enjoyed the scenery. I can see why so many folks really like this lake. Headed back to our site for lunch and then just hung out the rest of the day. Had another pair of loons which cruised around in front of the site for an hour or so.
Given how few folks we’d seen previously, we were surprised by the number of canoes out that day. There were several groups that were disappointed to discover our site occupied. Last one was a group of 3 canoes with 6 people who cruised by around 7pm, just as the light was starting to fade. I’m pretty sure Omega was full that night and I would not want to be hunting for a site with that large of a group that late.
The clouds had moved in, so no sunset or stargazing that night. Before we left, we knew there was a chance of rain later in our trip, so we hung the tarp to stash our gear just in case. Turned out to be a good move as it rained lightly overnight.
~Omega Lake, Winchell Lake
Our intel was that all of the sites on this lake were good (minus one) so we decided to cruise along and see what was available/looked good. It was the Monday of Labor Day weekend, so we were hoping most people had already packed up and left. (We’d encountered one person on a solo who’d started the same day as us. They’d originally planned on staying on Horseshoe, but all of the sites were full by the time they arrived around noon.)
As we paddled by, site 674 was open and looked good, so we grabbed it. This site is on the west side of a small peninsula with an almost 180 degree view north and west. There’s a small bay just to the southwest of the site that looks like it should be moosey (no luck for us) and a very easy/shallow area right off the front of the site. There were several tent sites to choose from. You could tell someone had been there the night before as there was an obvious dry spot where their tent had been. We opted to take a tent site a bit further from the fire grate, but up a slight hill. We put the tarp over another site between the tent and the fire grate. These decisions proved wise the next day.
Only bad things about site 674 is that it appears to be fairly heavily used (i.e., lots of pathways worn between the trees) and it was a hike to the thunderbox. (Looking around on the walk to the thunderbox, I bet it used to be a lot closer but has moved out over the years. There were several spots which looked like former locations.)
Once again, it was a bit too cloudy for a sunset/stargazing. However, mother nature did not disappoint. Just before the last of the light faded, a group of what we think were otters appeared just north of our campsite. It was too dim to get a good look/take a picture, but there were 3-4 heads out there frolicking in the water and having a grand time. After they disappeared, we slipped off to bed.
~Omega Lake, Henson Lake, Gaskin Lake, Horseshoe Lake
In the afternoon, the drizzle finally stopped. However the weather still didn’t cooperate as we kept getting hit with waves of heavy mist for the rest of the day and it remained in the mid 50s. We joked that we spent much of the day moving the camp chairs from the water’s edge to under the tarp and back. There were a couple eagles that circled the area, a peregrine falcon, and a trio of little ducks that spent hours feeding in front of our site. Our original plan for today was to cruise around Horseshoe and Vista, but neither of us felt like going out in the drizzle. No sunset or stargazing again tonight, so we retired to the tent. Only saw one canoe go by all day late in the afternoon.
We took our time paddling up through Horseshow and Caribou. Having started at Cross Bay, you could tell how much use these portages got by comparison. They were wide and easy to travel. We soon found ourselves on the last portage into Lizz Lake and were crossing out of BWCA before we knew it. A minor navigational error on Poplar extended our journey by about 30 min, but it was a scenic detour.
Arriving back at Rockwood around 1pm, we unpacked and returned the rental gear before making a beeline for a hot shower. It felt really good to get several layers of sweat and sunblock off. We then headed down to the Trail Center for a post trip burger, beer, and shake/pie. We had a room reserved at the MacArthur House cabins in Grand Marais that evening, so had plenty of time to explore. Feeling a bit overstuffed, we hiked the Honeymoon Bluffs trail, enjoying the good views over Hungry Jack and Bearskin Lakes. Tried to find the “moose viewing trail” but couldn’t find the parking lot and our rental car didn’t have the clearance to keep going.
Arriving back in Grand Marais, we did a light dinner at Hungry Hippy Tacos and then walked down to the waterfront to take in the sunset. It was nice to sleep in a real bed this night. ~Horseshoe Lake, Caribou Lake, Lizz Lake, Poplar Lake
The clouds had lifted by then, so we decided to go check out Judge CR Magney State Park and hike to Devil’s Kettle Falls. Made it back to the car before a brief set of rain showers and opted to wait those out at Voyagers Brewing. Once the rain let up, we made a short stop at Cascade River State Park before heading back down to Duluth.
Friday morning dawned sunny and we headed out to Split Rock Lighthouse. Ended up spending a lot more time there than we originally anticipated and took a long stroll along the coast. Grabbed lunch at Betty’s Pies (including one to go that safely made it home through TSA) and then enjoyed some time at Castle Danger. Finished up our evening with a stroll along the coast in Twin Harbors. One of the recommendations we’d gotten in Grand Marais was to check out Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. This was one of the best suggestions we’ve gotten while traveling. We ended up spending most of the day watching the migration. Although it was still early in the season and not ideal wind conditions, it was still an amazing experience. We finished up our time on the North Shore with a quick sampling of the Duluth craft cider scene before heading back down to Minneapolis. Priceline scored us the Microtel Inn this evening. Since we had an early flight out, it was close to the airport and perfectly fine for just one night. One last repack and it was back to the real world.
In all, we had a fantastic first trip to BWCA. The weather mostly cooperated, especially on our travel days. Although we didn’t get to everything we had planned, that was probably a good thing. The forced relaxation was needed and quiet time in nature is good for the soul. Rockwood was a delight to work with and I can understand why they come so highly recommended.
I did totally overpack on food. We probably had enough to last us another 3-4 days. However, if it would have been cooler/rainier, we probably would gone through more of it. And next time, don’t forget the hot chocolate!
I like to dabble in photography and did take along my DSLR and a couple lenses. Unfortunately, I had an issue with the memory card in that camera and nothing was actually recorded. Thankfully, I’d also packed a waterproof point and shoot for travel days. Since the DSLR was acting funny, I took photos on both cameras so I didn’t lose everything. There are times when you really miss the 300mm lens though!
I’ve already started to plot potential itineraries for a return. However, it’s a big world out there and only so much vacation time. We’ll see when we’re able to swing a return. Until then, I have frolicking otters, sleekly gliding loons, and golden sunrises on mirror lakes etched in my mind.