BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 09 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1670 feet
Cross Bay Lake - 50
As the PMA Turns: A Daytime Drama in 10 acts
August 10, 2019
Missing Link Lake
Number of Days:
Read, research, update gear, plan, plan, plan. That was me since last December. Originally the trip was just for my husband, son, and I. But then our friend from Costa Rica was able to get a visa and suddenly his trip to MN coincided with our (or should I say my) carefully laid plans. So adjust we did. Found gear for him to use, increased the food quantities, borrowed another canoe. One problem when he arrived. He has never learned to swim and is afraid of the water. He arrived only about 5 days before we were due to leave so we got him out in the canoe everyday and I insisted that he practice swamping a canoe, just in case. He HATED that part, but it was good motivation for him to stay upright during the trip.
Despite all my prep work, Stew and I were still up until 12:30 a.m. setting up the canoe rack extenders to be able to carry the second canoe. Still managed to get on the road by 8:20 a.m. [paragraph break]We had a late breakfast in Barnum at the Lazy Bear (our favorite restaurant), and on to Grand Marais. We picked up our regular permit and our PMA permit at the Grand Marais Ranger Station, and then puttered about town before having dinner at Hungry Jack Lodge and spending the night at Camp Menogyn. Boy, did I feel old seeing my long trip paddles from my camper and guiding days are now on the 2nd row from the bottom with 5 rows of paddles above them. The years fly by fast apparently.
Saturday, August 10, 2019
On Saturday, we had breakfast at Trail Center...yummy! When we put into the water at the Round Lake landing, we maybe started to wonder if we had made the right decision. Jose was feeling wobbly in the canoe and I could barely lift our 80 pound pack. But onward ho! We singled portaged the 142 rod portage into Missing Link with me carrying the daypack and the 45 lb canoe, Stew carrying his pack basket and the 55 lb. canoe, Joey carrying the 80 lb. pack known as the "Beast", and Jose carrying the 50 lb. Sealline pack. Pretty flat reasonable portage with a little mud and some rocky areas. So far so good.
Next portage was 180 rods into Snipe Lake. My son suddenly announces he wants to take my canoe and I should carry "Beast". Say what?! I thought we had a deal. We decided to not single portage this one. So everyone took off with me taking up the rear. Big mistake. Took me 8 minutes just to figure out a way to get that pack onto my shoulders. My son made that pack look easy...nope, not easy at all. I neglected to train for this scenario. Once up, I must have looked ridiculous. I could only take baby steps and I kind of swore a few times...fortunately no children around to hear me. Once Joey reached the end of the portage, he came back to check on me. His words were, "Mom, the canoe was terrible to carry. My shoulders were killing me! The pack was so much better!" Whew! We were now back to our original deal...me canoe, him pack.
We camped on Snipe since it was the closest we could get to our entry point into the PMA for the next day. Very pretty lake with narrow gorges and lots of cliffs. The campsite had previously been visited by idiots who had stripped birch bark off living trees, whacked a lot with an axe, and left us a really long bear rope they had apparently been unable to get unstuck from a tree.
Total travel time: 2 hours
Sunday, August 11, 2019 [paragraph break] Today was the first day for our entry into the Hairy Lake PMA. If you are unfamiliar with PMA's, they are special zones within the BWCA that are not maintained in any way. Meaning no portage paths, no designated campsites. You need a special permit and a special level of crazy to stay overnight in one, but you are pretty well guaranteed solitude.
We are not early risers...insert "teenage boy who really, really likes to sleep in" and we are not fast movers in the morning...insert "too many coffee drinkers" (of course, I myself am NOT in that category). Plus remember we had a group member who was a novice at pretty much everything. But we headed off with vigor for the portage into Copper Lake. Feeling a little cocky we spent a lot of time walking back along this portage to take photos, but, hey, if you can't enjoy the journey what's the point. At least we knew no one was going to beat us to our campsite for the night.
Research told me there could be some faint old portage trails to the first couple unnamed lakes/puddles before reaching Sora Lake. I am not going to include a lot of details here regarding the portages and bushwhacks, because any description I give could be a totally different experience for the next person, but I can be contacted with specific questions.
From Copper to Puddle #1, found an old portage on the east side of the stream. Pretty easy and we thought we were done, but then discovered a beaver dam at the north end of the puddle made our put in impassable. We had to bushwhack through a hummock filled marshy meadow. Some boot sucking mud.
From Puddle #1 to Puddle #2, decided to start doing double portage while in the PMA. This second portage also pretty easy to find, again on east side of stream. No beaver dam issues.
From Puddle #2 to Puddle #3, again found a faint trail on the east side of the stream. Harder to be certain so we used Joey as a scout. He did a great job giving everyone accurate directions and helping to guide the canoe carriers. This portage was significantly longer so we were happy we ate lunch before starting it. There were a lot of very tight spots for the canoe and a tree down that was too large to climb over so we had to pass the canoes over. We really started working well as a team on this portage.
From Puddle #3 to Sora Lake: We had mixed notes on this and we didn't expect to find an old portage. But we are pretty experienced at finding and following faint paths in the woods. We paddled as far south as we could, but then there was a tree in the way and really bad mud on the east side of the channel. Better to land slightly farther north on east side where there is grass and less mud. We followed a very faint path and then came to what could best be described as a dead end. It was a 4 foot high rock ridge that ran off in either direction. Faint path completely gone. We took turns scouting in different directions before hitting impenetrable walls of trees.[paragraph break] At the start of this bushwhack, Joey had gotten very overheated so he laid on shady moss drinking water while we staged all the gear at the "dead end" and started searching for a way through. Fortunately, he recovered and ended up being vital in finally tracing a route on the west side of the marshy area. On this portage, we started using the following bushwhack method. Two people rest with the gear while 2 people scout a route, putting up bits of surveyors tape to mark as far as another good staging area. Then work together to shuttle all the gear to that spot and start setting up the next leg. The person taking up the rear would remove all the marking tape. Sora is beautiful lake and we happily found a place to tuck in for the night.
Monday, August 12, 2019 Stew commented that we should have planned this trip to have 1 day of bushwhacking, 1 day of rest. But alas, onward we had to push. Portaged to Din was quick...less than 30 minutes. Waterway from Din to Mass was completely blocked with plants/trees but it was a quick lift over the rocky point.
Notes I had read before the trip mentioned portaging through the marshy area from Mass to Ell. We didn't feel that would have been the most logical route. We opted to make our way through the woods which are relatively open in that area. We checked out a number of start points before settling on a likely route. We used the same team work approach that had worked yesterday. Stew and Joey scouted a route, selecting good staging points along the way. Then I carried each canoe through with a pack carrier acting as a guide so I didn't miss any turns. The route was not muddy...there were slippery rocks and some weird holes in places and plenty of tight squeezes between trees with the canoes. The sound of gunwales squealing as dragged through the trees echoes through my brain.
Doing this type of portaging, you get really good at using every tool. I rarely had both hands resting on the canoe gunwales as I walked. Instead, my hands would reach out for trees to steady myself as I balanced on rocks or to pull myself up a big step up. I spent a lot of time clambering over downed logs that were waist high thinking how glad I was our canoes were both very well balanced.
After three legs of this bushwhack, we all walked to Ell to refill water bottles and have lunch. We had 2 more staging points planned, but then Joey left lunch early and brought the "beast" pack to the end in one stage. While he collapsed at the end to rest, Stew, Jose, and I went back for the canoes. I carried the heavier and wider canoe while Jose carried the yellow pack and Stew acted as my guide. I had my first dropped canoe for the trip just as we started out. Stepped wrong, canoe went on wrong side of a tree. When I took a step backward, the canoe slammed into the side of a tree and just got knocked right off my shoulders quick as could be. Fortunately no harm done. I got good at fancy footwork and at tilting the canoe sideways to fit through some spots but I made it to the end in a single stage.
It was a hot afternoon so I wetted my head buff and neckerchief and headed off for the other canoe. We had found by this point in the trip that my short, squat body was best suited for the canoe carrying. My husband had discovered that his hips weren't flexible enough to clamber over downed trees like I could and his height was a distinct disadvantage with all the low tree branches. Fortunately, carrying the canoe puts me in my happy place and I could do it all day long.
Since it was 4pm by the time we reached Ell Lake with all the gear and we were facing another unknown bushwhack to reach Iris, we decided to camp on Ell. Good choice, it started raining soon after we camped
Total time: 6 hours (5 bushwhacking, 1 paddling)
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
We made the decision to sleep in today, then just travel to Iris. This puts us a day behind, but we are really enjoying the PMA and didn't want to skip Iris Lake. It rained on and off through the night but was kind enough to pause around midnight so I could take a pee break. I hate having to pee in the rain and dark. I had weird dreams this night...borderline hallucinations: owl stealing a shiny bracelet, Stew calling to the owl so he could retrieve the bracelet..trees and rocks morphing into strange formations. Maybe that's what I get for putting kale in the chicken soup.
Turns out Stew had actually been calling to an owl during the pre-dawn hours. Both Joey and I independently asked Stew the same question, "Was I dreaming? Or were you calling to an owl?"
After a leisurely morning, Stew and Joey went ahead to scout a bushwhack route while Jose and I loaded ALL the gear in the 2nd canoe. They found a way through to the puddle that is SW of Ell and NW of Iris. It was a pretty easy, short, and fairly open trek through the woods. Very short paddle over to the stream into Iris. Joey loves little creeks so he and I carried some lighter stuff down the creek bed but the footing was way too slippery to think about carrying the canoes that way. We found a tight route through the woods to carry the canoes, but it was a lot of squeezing through and tipping the canoes sideways. The ground was very slanted most of the way and after last night's rain, the footing was very slick. Note that we stayed on the west side of the stream so we did not end up at the cliff described by others.
Even with our late start, we reached Iris by 2pm but figured we deserved an early stop. We explored Iris a lot...beautiful lake. We fished a little...came up empty. Joey and I scouted tomorrow's route to Fetter's a bit.
Total time: 3 hours (2 bushwhacking, 1 paddling)
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Left our beautiful Iris Lake campsite just before 10:30am...told you we are slow movers in the morning. We already knew where we wanted to portage from Iris into the next puddle before Fetters. Some downed trees (beaver action) and a tight squeeze between boulders and a cliff, but not a hard trip to the puddle. Then we found a faint path on the west side of the stream to take us to Fetters.
Then it got interesting trying to get out of Fetters thanks to some very busy beavers. Pulled canoes over the first dam, then parked alongside their big dam. Best path was directly over the middle of the dam, then cross boulder field to river right. We were able to pick up an old path that dumped us out at Octopus on the river left side. On the way back up to retrieve a 2nd load of gear, Stew and Joey startled two young otters who clambered out of a pool of water and turned to watch them. Cute little curious faces staring out of the brush.
Despite the faint trail in places this was worthy of being a bushwhack so I carried both canoes again. We ate lunch at Octopus. Octopus lake is very shallow and full of lily pads. Seemed like prime moose country but no luck for us even though we did some extra paddling around quietly into different bays. We portaged into the Frost River, but it became apparent that the water was really low and the river bony. It was hard to even get the canoe through the water to the next portage and beaver dams were plentiful.
We discussed the situation, and given that we were physically beat after the PMA, Jose had developed a ingrown toenail that was extremely painful walking, and we were a day behind, we made the wise decision to turn around and head out through Long Island Lake and then back out through Missing Link. This would make for some really short days, but doubt anyone would one complain...well actually Joey and I did complain one day but...
On the portage back out of the Frost R. I noticed a leech squirming in the bottom of the canoe. I smooshed it and blood came pouring out. Joey wondered whose blood it was. Turns out it was mine! The back of my leg was gushing blood and had an 1/8 inch hole in it. When we got to the next portage, I noticed a massive leech swimming toward me as I stood in the water unloading. Then there were 2, then 3, 4, and pretty soon we had 5 enormous leeches swimming at us. Joey and I were jumping around and shrieking like crazy. Pretty silly since we aren't really afraid of leeches...but they acted so menacing. They reminded me of a pack of wolves circling their prey.
Camped on Frost Lake. Had a huge dinner of falafel and rice pilaf (curry, almonds, raisins). I made fruit cobbler for dessert and it was amazing! First chance to use my Alpine Fry/Bake with a top fire. Jose saw his first ever bald eagle tonight.
Total time: 6 hours (4 portaging/bushwhacking, 2 paddling)
Thursday, August 15, 2019
Spent a LOT of time journal writing this morning. I have been writing lots on this trip. It has been a year of reflection about trips past as well as more current trips and about what the wilderness means to me.
Yesterday I waited patiently in one of the beaver dam pools while others scouted the bushwhack route. I was soloing the canoe to keep its tender Kevlar skin off the rocks. The wind blew through the trees...the thrum of dragonfly wings as they roared past me, all the while scooping bugs out of the air...birds calling back and forth to each other...the smell of crushed wild mint where Joey had stepped moments before...the reflection in the water so perfect while I gently rocked the canoe creating a ripple that made me feel a little dizzy as the reflected trees were distorted. Doesn't get any better, does it?
This morning we did not have far to travel, so we went swimming and took our time breaking camp. Didn't leave until 11:15. Having actual portages felt so easy. We reached our campsite on Long Island Lake by 1:15pm. But that gave Jose a lot of time to dry out his ingrown toenail and rest. We ate lunch and then Stew fished from shore. He caught a small northern but it had swallowed the hook and it took quite some doing to get him free.
Later Stew and I went out fishing in the canoe...well, Stew fished and I paddled him around. I don't enjoy fishing, but I know enough about where fish like to hang out that I make a good partner in the canoe. Stew caught a good sized northern for supper. Joey spent the afternoon reading by the lakeshore. He had a frog that hung out in the water under a log right next to him the whole time.
Total time: 2 hours
Friday, August 16, 2019
Packed up in the rain and headed for Snipe Lake. Pretty paddle. I have been amazed at how few people we have seen. Only around Missing Link and then again at portages from Frost to Long Island Lake. Today, we only saw one party of people and Snipe Lake was completely empty when we arrived around noon. It was almost empty last time through too...only one party camped on opposite end of lake from us.
We climbed up to the middle campsite to eat lunch because Joey wanted to see if any late blueberries remained. He camped here a couple years ago. Then we went to the northern campsite where we had camped the 1st night. Yep, birch trees still stripped of bark, but this time the abandoned yellow bear rope was already stowed in our pack and had been put to good use all trip. We joked about putting it back into the tree where we found it and leaving it for the next group.
Since it had only taken us 2.5 hours to get here and the previous day had been lax also, Joey and I were feeling antsy. He really want us to continue to Missing Link and camp at a site that he loved from that trip a couple years ago. So we left Stew and Jose to shore fish while we portaged over to Missing Link. That site was open, but the portage was very slippery from the rain (Joey actually slipped on a rock and skinned up his knee and ripped his pants). So we decided it would not be a popular decision to drag the others over from Snipe. So we paddled back and settled in for the night...at least feeling like we had worked a little harder.
Total time: about 4 hours including the side trip to Missing Link and back ~Long Island Lake, Karl Lake, Lower George Lake, Rib Lake, Cross Bay Lake, Snipe Lake
Saturday, August 17, 2019
Last day...sigh. Loved getting to have a trip longer than our typical Labor Day weekend trips from the last few years, but I could have stayed a lot longer. Have to admit that I am very jealous that my son spent 5 weeks in the wilderness this summer. Next year I am determined to arrange my schedule to allow more than one trip.
Portage from Snipe to Missing Link has a spot with a nearly chest high vertical rock face. There is sort of a tight path beaten around the side. But when I arrived at it carrying the canoe, my son was waiting. He said, "Let me take it up this." Okay...Sure enough he just bounds up it with the canoe like he was walking on flat ground. How did he do that? He gave me back the canoe and waited for his dad and repeated his feat of wonder. When I asked him later how he did that, he simply replied, "Mom, that is the kind of stuff I am built for! I have REALLY strong legs!" Guess I can't argue with that statement.
After we exited at Round Lake, we packed up, and then drove up to the end of the Gunflint Trail to see Chik Mauk museum. We had never been before and really enjoyed it. Favorite parts: reading about the early businesses on the Gunflint Trail...all the names I had heard through the years, and visiting the new boat museum. Turns out they used the exact same plans as Menogyn used to build their timber frame canoe repair building (only Chik Mauk decided to enclose theirs).
Made it to our friends' house near Duluth for their annual corn roast. Great food, great people (no one even said a thing about our trail funk). We decided to not camp over at their place Saturday night as originally planned. Instead we headed back to the Cities.
Total time: didn't track it but about 2 hours
~Snipe Lake, Missing Link Lake, Round Lake