BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 24 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1670 feet
Cross Bay Lake - 50
Adventure trip-Tusc to Little Sag, Gabbi, Peter, Gillis, Brant
June 10, 2020
Missing Link Lake
Brant Lake (52)
Number of Days:
We drove up from the cities the day before and stayed at our cabin on Devils Track. Got up around 4:30, hit the road by 6, and it took about an hour to get up the trail to Round Lake. Mosquitos at Devils Track and Round were pretty thick, but its June and we were expecting that. I don't know much about it, but apparently some sort of remnant of a tropical storm had joined us in Cook county Tuesday night, and was still very much present Wednesday morning. It poured all night and was raining hard when we left Wednesday. Also of concern, a small craft warning starting at 7 am, so that was our motivation to get out as early as possible. We thought if we could just get across Tuscarora before the wind picks up, the lakes after that are pretty sheltered and we'd have a shot at Little Saganaga.
Round was nice and calm, paddled straight down the middle to the Missing Link portage. We love this Northwind 17, so much more stable than our old Winona Sundowner, giving us a little more paddling confidence that we lacked last year. We double portaged to Missing Link last year with the kids so its not too intimidating to me at this point. We're expecting plenty of rocks and mud, and that's just what we got. It was also our first time single portaging so a bit of some learning took place real quick here. K was carrying the big black Granite Gear portage pack, it dwarfs her frame but somehow she manages to carry it. We did our best to keep our gear pretty light. I've got the blue barrel and the boat, as well as the under seat gear bag. The barrel is heavy (40-50 lb?) with a fair bit of extra liquid weight at the beginning of the trip, and I find out instantly that leaving the under seat bag in the canoe will not work. Throws the whole boat way out of balance, I only made it a few steps and put it back down to fix that. Under seat bag gets strapped to my sternum strap from now on for portaging. I also had a little trouble with the boat getting hung up on the barrel when I'd put it up on my shoulders, I got much better as the trip went on but the first few pickups were ugly with a lot of muttering. Finally, my pfd is the style with the high back for kayaking, that wasn't matching up with the barrel well at all, pfd comes off for all future portages.
We make the portage, gave a nod to the first site on the left where we stayed last year (love that little Jack pine), and quickly got to the Tusc portage. This is the one we've been waiting for. Now remember its been pouring rain all night and all morning at this point, and the portages are more like small, muddy rivers. This was everything I expected: hard as heck, long, buggy, mud; there was one spot it was more like we were walking through a pond than a portage. I only took one little breather, otherwise kept going. My shoulders hurt....so much, I wanted to get that boat off me so bad but I hated the idea of having to put it back on so I just pushed through. What a relief when we finally got to Tusc. I think we let out a little hoot and a holler of victory. Still raining, but the water is calm which is very encouraging.
We paddle out and as we got towards that first north point with the campsite, we can hear the wind ahead; we can see the white caps out in the middle of the lake, we're filled with nervous energy. Will it be too much? What can we handle with this new boat? We round the corner to head west and get blasted with wind, rain, and waves. Our movement slows to a crawl and we see the first site...it couldn't have taken more than 30 seconds and we decide to get out and into the site. K already has a shiver making it clear this is a good choice. We got our big, green Kelty tarp (we've named it tarpe diem) set up to have a dry spot under the rain, got some dry clothes on, and settle in to our first home. This is also our first time hammock camping, there are ample trees here to set up on, and I've done a few trial runs ahead of time so I'm prepared to set things up properly. I make some warm quesadillas with chicken and salsa rather than the cheese, salami, and crackers we had planned, and that felt good.
I should also mention this site offered the perfect amount of protection from the wind, before long the mosquitos were gone, we had a good breeze, but still also some protection from the wind whipping out on the lake. This was unexpected, we thought for sure we'd be battling the bugs all day and night. We joked the locals must tell us city folks the bugs are intolerable in June so that they can keep the BWCA mostly for themselves this time of year.
The rest of the day and evening are pretty nice, the rain slowed to an on again-off again sprinkle, I managed to get a fire going despite the wet wood (I pre-dried the logs on the grate over the fire to keep it going better), had a little wine with sausages cooked over the fire and listened to the Covid community conversation on WTIP. What a relief to be leaving that all behind if only for a couple days. The first confirmed case in Cook county today is sure to create a new frenzy, we've been very careful while traveling to bring all needed supplies and only stop for gas or nature's call. The wind is still ripping and we don't see anyone else today. Guessing the other entry permits stayed on Missing Link or headed to Snipe to avoid the wind. The first night's sleep is never stellar and this was no exception, every once in a while the wind would gust so hard I swear my hammock would bounce up into the air with me in it; that on top of the non-stop sound of blowing trees and crashing waves. I got some sleep, but only as much as can be expected. Our plan is to get up with the sun and skip breakfast in hopes of a calmer lake to push on to Little Sag on day 2.
I woke up in my hammock around quarter to 5, I had set my alarm for five...I listened to the wind and the waves and the trees; no calming overnight whatsoever that I could tell. I didn't even bother to look out, I canceled my alarm and went back to sleep. K woke me up maybe closer to 6:30, I got out to find her hammock camp all packed up already. She was thinking we could brave the waves...I looked out at those big ol' rollers coming across and just wasn't ready to take that on. The news of someone drowning on this lake recently weighed heavy on my mind. I new only what was initially on the radio that weekend, but I wondered, did they stay at this site? Did they wonder for a while if they could make it, and finally decide to give it a try only to have it go so badly? I just wasn't ready to take that chance. (I later saw the trip report on this site and it was a bit different scenario) We settled into breakfast and decided we'd wait and see, initial weather reports from before we left were that it'd be just as windy if not more so than the previous day, WTIP was reporting the possibility it could lighten up.
Most of my day was spent exploring the point a bit and gathering quite a bit of firewood. K got plenty of reading in. The clouds were breaking up and the sun felt real good, but the whitecaps on the lake were relentless through the middle of the day. I kept thinking if I could just see someone else brave the waves, I could watch and see if it seemed like something we could do or not. Late morning or early afternoon we got that chance, two tandem boats came around the point and hit the wind. It looked almost like they stopped dead in their tracks, despite digging deep with their paddles they barely made it past the point and quickly gave up and turned back. My guess is they went back to the site near the portage. This helped me feel a little better with our decision, but I was still torn between wanting to stay safe and wanting to move on. Later I saw that the eastern most camp was occupied, I looked in the binoculars and saw either a tent or tarp getting blasted by the wind, clearing receiving the full force of the wind on that side of the lake. If they had come in this morning, I bet they had a bumpy ride.
After lunch some time we decided to bushwhack to the west side of our point to see if we could spot the campsite down the shore. No such luck but we did see 3 new boats giving the waves a try on our way back to camp. Looked like 3 guys in one, 2 women in another, and a solo. The 3 guys yelled, "head straight for the island!" The 2 women seemed less sure, clinging to shore, but eventually went for it. The solo chased behind, barely moving against the wind. We climbed out onto an opening and watched them for the entire voyage to the island. It seemed like it took quite a while, but they did eventually make it. We heard them shout with happiness when they must have discovered the island site unoccupied. This sent my second guessing though the ringer once again...should we go? They made it, why couldn't we? But it sure didn't look easy, or safe. We committed with finality this time, we're staying. As the afternoon approached evening, the lake calmed significantly. Even at mid evening we were still itching to make a little progress, but by then we had a great stack of wood, fire going, dinner cooking; let's just settle in and enjoy the evening. So we did.
I woke up briefly in the middle of the night, around 1am I think, and took a look outside. The stars were as bright as could be, no moon, just exactly the best night sky everyone hopes for in the wilderness. Only the northern lights could have made it better. I could see a fire going across the lake, someone must had made it to that campsite at some point as well. A cold night, maybe bottoming out in the high 30's, but we've got good sleeping bags and I wore pretty much all of the clothes I had brought, only my rain coat was left outside the hammock to dry out. We were warm enough in the hammocks though, minus some chill in the toes despite doubled up socks.
Little did I know when I woke up this day, that at the end of it I would have been out paddling and portaging for nearly 15 hours. Yikes.
We got up with the sun at 5:30, skipped breakfast other than a couple cliff bars and were on the move by 7. The lake was calm but the breeze was picking up quick, no doubt Tuscarora doesn't seem to stay sleepy for long. Our path was still up in the air, perhaps we'd just go to Crooked and then head north to Gillis and stay there, but we were still itching to get to Little Sag; let's just see how the morning goes and then decide. It didn't take long at all to reach Crooked so our minds were set, we will still make this trip to Little Sag, even if we're a day behind. Paddling and portaging went well, I mistakenly pointed us to the south on Mora, heading to the wrong portage, but we figured things out and made it back on track to the 45 rod to Little Sag. I won't lie though, it was a small hit to my confidence, I don't like feeling turned around. Following the Superior Trail like we have so many times past is far easier than navigating these lakes and finding portages.
We came up Little Sag and were careful to make sure we were recognizing landmarks and campsites, and made it to the overlook campsite after that first bay on the northeast side. We felt good, we knew exactly where we were and confidence was restored. The lake was still pretty calm and looked great, with only one other canoe spotted as far as we could see. We ate our late breakfast/lunch of bagels and breakfast sausage and lied on the warm rocks for a while to soak up some sun. Great views of the lake up here, but pretty exposed to the wind and not much depth to the site other than a nice vista rock up by the latrine. Also clearly in the burn area so not much for mature trees. I'm not sure I'd want to make this our camp for the night, and it was still around noon so no reason not to keep moving.
Our new plan was to follow the northeast shore up to the portage for Virgin lake and head that way, settling on whichever campsite looked good on the chain of three lakes over there: Virgin, West Fern, or Powell. Following the shore however proved quite challenging. The islands that look so tiny on the map were larger than expected, and we found ourselves really struggling to tell if we were still along the shore, or instead along an island. We knew we were still on the northeast side of the lake, but I was having a hard time figuring out where exactly. We went into what I think was the bay just west of the portage, stopped to try and figure out where we were, and eventually decided to go further west rather than east. A maze of more small islands eventually got us to a portage but we could tell by the look of things it was more likely to Rattle lake rather than Virgin. No worries I thought, this was the original goal route for us anyway so let's do it. We're making good time, lots of day left and gorgeous weather, no reason to look back now.
We went to Rattle, and spent a bit of time searching for the portage, once again lowering my confidence. The map showed the red dots to the west of the small hill along the river to Gabbimichigami, we went up and down the shore twice finding nothing and eventually decided to check out the river where we could hear rapids, and sure enough it was right by the river. "Follow the water sound" was what we came away with there. Seems most portages are close to the streams connecting lakes than is sometimes indicated on the map. We got to Gabbi lake and wow, what a gorgeous area. We were checking off the campsites as we paddled, keeping good track of our location while soaking in the solitude and beauty of this lake. No campsites occupied, the eastern site of the pair mid lake was park like with mature trees and wide open space. We'll definitely get back here some day. But getting from Gabbi to Round on our last day seemed like a long one, so we continued to move on, figuring we'd settle into a site on Peter.
Peter was a nice long lake, but a little ominous feeling. It looked like the fire had burned especially hot here, Ham Lake fire we figured but found it after the trip to be the Cavity Lake fire. No mature trees left, and almost no tall dead ones even as we'd seen in the Ham Lake burn area. Which led to another lesson, don't bring a hammock to camp in a burn area. We checked out site after site to find no tall trees, a few scrubby jack pines that could maybe keep K off the ground, but no way supporting my weight would be good for them. This was likely 4ish in the afternoon by now, but all we could do was move on, searching for a site with some trees. We went to French, the portage was packed with new growth shoving the canoe from side to side as we portaged, and we checked out the north site, again no mature trees. Things looked better looking south, but we were heading east overall and didn't want to add distance at this point so we thought, surely if we could just get to Gillis, there's so many sites there, that would be the end of our day.
We came out on Gillis and could immediately see people at the nearby sites and multiple boats on the water. This was a party lake, packed with people on a Friday night. We decided on heading south to check the other sites there first, all occupied. As we inspected, that same crew of three boats from Tusc were heading east. We followed behind to watch them occupy the last sight on Gillis, it was tough to see, surely they couldn't have been out for as long as we had been, we were tired and needed to be done, but first come first serve, what can you do? Three sites left on Bat, a smaller lake and I'd hope less popular, we'll head that way. Likely around 5 o'clock by now.
We encountered a solo traveler at the portage to Bat, he had driven up from Milwaukee that morning and gone through Brant. We were impressed to see him at Gillis. He said it looked like all the sites on Bat were occupied, maybe a site left on Brant but another group was putting in as he had headed out and they mentioned the intention to not go out far on their first night. Not great news for us, we told him it looked full on Gillis too, head for French. But all we could do press on, plenty of light left this time of year we thought, the idea was already coming to mind that we may just go all the way out to our truck waiting on Round lake. It would be 8 portages yet to make that happen, but the lakes were mostly small, maybe it could be done if we had to.
As expected, all occupied on Bat, we barely bothered to slow while checking them, continued on as we must with still a shred of hope for Brant. We went on to Green, uneventful, then Flying, a swampy little lake. We encountered two boats here, they seemed a little disgruntled that they had not found a site yet, looked like they were headed to the north to try and find something. Then the portage to Gotter and things got a bit rough. We hit a Y in the path, K went up ahead to the right and it didn't look right, so we went left. There was clearly a trail on the ground, but the brush and trees told a different story. Before long both my shins were scraped and bleeding from all the brush and trees, and finally it got so thick I lodged the canoe between two trees and got completely stuck. I dropped the boat which smacked right into my beat up legs and I was unable to even move through the brush to get it off me. Totally stuck. K gave me a hand and pulled the boat off me, then went a hair down the trail. Looks like a way to get to some water but we're on the wrong side of it from where the map showed we should be, just got to push through. I took a look, I felt very unsure. Where are we? Had we gone to a different small lake? This was low land and the sun was behind the trees, the time crunch was on and it was stressing me out. I knew we could set up camp anywhere if we had to, but I also wanted to double back and get to a point where I knew for sure where we were. K was sure this must be Gotter, lets just get in the water and to the end, if the portage is where it's supposed to be, it should be right. I was hesitant, but the shape of the lake seemed to match, and the portage was heading in the right direction according to the compass, so we pressed on. I told K, "there's a site right at the beginning of Brant, I just need to see some people and I'll feel better." A while back I had read "Lost in the Wild," two stories of folks that had gotten good and lost in this same forest, one in the BWCA and one on the Pow Wow trail; they both survived but their stories were rough and nearly deadly, and those stories were coming into my mind at this point. The psychological battle with myself was on, and it wasn't going well due to my exhaustion and dehydration at this point.
But! We came out on Brant, there were the occupied sites, we were found again, and that felt good. We weren't hopeful for a site, but at least we were sure where we were again. We passed all the full sites, very careful to be keeping a look on the compass as we went along, even passed a group camping on the island because they had the same problem as us: lots of travel to find no open sites. We had 3 portages to go to just finish this thing up, lets just get to the truck and call it. If we could just get to Round, I'd have no problem paddling that in the dark.
We made it to the east side of Brant, went up and down the shore a little, and just weren't finding the portage. I looked back to the west, the sun was well below the tree line now. "We're done," I said. We backtracked a little to a large open boulder and climbed up it, this will have to do. It was 9pm, we'd been out for 14.5 hours. K was a poet with the tarp and managed a low shelter with what scrub trees and stumps there were, about 3 feet off the ground. I got some water filtered and started the ramen. It took a while for the adrenaline to wind down, a couple cups of wine helped with that. The mosquitos were thick as smoke, but the temp dropped fast and out of no where, poof! They were gone. Very thankful for that. We climbed into our bags after dinner to sleep on our boulder. I slept like a dream! Only woke up once to hear the beavers slapping the water down below. K said maybe she got 45 minutes of sleep all night, I was way too exhausted for that.
~Tuscarora Lake, Owl Lake, Crooked Lake, Tarry Lake, Mora Lake, Little Saganaga Lake, Rattle Lake, Gabimichigami Lake, Peter Lake, French Lake, Gillis Lake, Bat Lake, Green Lake, Flying Lake, Gotter Lake, Brant Lake
Woke up to find a beautiful lake in the morning, all fogged in with the sun shining through. Beavers and loons surrounded us. Another cold morning around 40 or less, got the coffee going in a hurry to wake up and warm up. We felt amazing after our adventure yesterday, and glad we didn't have to do it again today! What a day that was. We wanted to see what we were capable of on this trip and now we know. This was the Little Saganaga route I found on the Clearwater Lodge website, it recommended 4-5 days, and we had just done the vast majority of it in 1 day. Yikes.
We hit the water as soon as the fog lifted, we saw one boat go through the fog before that, we weren't up for that. We quickly found the portage out of Brant this morning once things cleared up, much easer with a clear mind and plenty of sunshine. This portage stunk! Almost all of it was under water with deep mud, not sure if it was from all the rain or if beavers have raised the water level since it had easy reviews in the past. I think if we had hit this at 9 last night we would have totally broken down and cried like babies. But it turned out a great opportunity to put my Sealskinz waterproof socks to the test and they worked out great! Even kept a few leaches off K's feet where they lodged between the sock and her Keens. We moved quickly through these last couple portages to get to Round. A great sense of accomplishment washed over us as we pulled up to the landing. A feeling doubly good when my truck fired right up (no reason it shouldn't, but you can't help but wonder when its been sitting in the woods for a few days). Only problem is we got out too early, so Trail Center won't be open yet when we head back down. Shoot.
Overall, this was a great adventure of a trip, I loved all the challenges, and a much needed mental reset after all the world has been the last couple months. We got back to the cabin to lunch, showers, and a beer and then settled in to nap it off. ~Brant Lake, Edith Lake, West Round Lake, Round Lake