BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
October 04 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 5
Elevation: 1498 feet
Missing Link Lake - 51
June 2021 Solo to Adams
June 28, 2021
Missing Link Lake
Number of Days:
It was four hours to “the bridge” (The Mackinaw Bridge for any non-Michiganders). I made it to Manistique, an hour past St. Ignace. Nothing like a Subway club on the beach as true darkness falls. I slept in the truck, giddy as a kid that has gotten away with the big prank. I kept waiting for a phone call to drag me home.
It was six a half hours to Two Harbors. I listened to The Mayflower audiobook, struck by the audacity and perseverance of the early Pilgrims, saddened by the plight of the native peoples. All the familiar touch points counted down the miles: Crystal Falls, the old buildings stacked up the hillside. Ashland and that great view toward the Apostle Islands. Duluth and the best bridge in the midwest. The North Shore and the fantastic Lake Superior vistas it regularly offers. I always get my license and a sub in Two Harbors. The drive flew by; the shortcut around the endless Grand Marais construction broke me from my daze, adrenaline pinching me as I climbed over the Laurentian Divide. Rain chased me up the Gunflint, overwhelming the wipers with great buckets that forced me to pull off.
Voyageur Canoe Outfitters was busy, which suited my “get the permit and get out” mission. The staff was efficient and pleasant as always. I scarfed down the sub and dumped the road snacking trash, backtracking to the Round Lake entry. It is the quintessential BWCA entry lake, gorgeous with an overloaded aluminum canoe flipping bass tubes at the shoreline.
As I pulled up, a paddle board skimmed out from Tuscarora Outfitters. The young woman turned around the point, rolled up a sweatshirt pillow, and gracefully laid down for a nap in the quiet bay. I am in Minnesota!
I organized gear the rest of daylight. I thought of the hours I spent dreaming, pouring over maps, chasing down exact gear that I probably didn’t need, scanning endless threads on message boards. Any time I needed to slow the mental mechanism, the idea of a full boat and a J stroke never failed to quiet the noise. I realized it is a skill to be here while you are here. The rock. The water. The green blanket of the shore. The freedom of solitude. The solitude in this freedom.
At dusk, boomers were building in the west, and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of bugs. However, as I enjoyed the camp chair, my head lolling back without the daily weight of home and hearth, I noticed great plumes of bugs high in the air. Suddenly, a huge dragonfly swooped in; the audible smack confirmed its purpose. BWCA dragonflies should have to file flight plans.
Up a 4. The truck slept hot and restless. The rain didn’t break the heat but managed to wake me regularly. The morning was humid and quiet. After a quick cup of coffee and a Cliff bar, I was on the water by 5:30. The lake was glass, and I glided effortlessly. Dawn paddles capture the essence of canoe country. The first portage to Missing Link was wet and treacherous, a dripping jungle. I was soaked from the waist down, but I floated on the constant disbelief that I am really here, alone, ready for eight days of peace.
I broke up the mile to Tuscarora in ten minute legs, leapfrogging the gear. As my third time double portaging this beast, it has become familiar. Tuscarora was smooth when I hit it, and I crossed to Owl by 9:30. I saw my first folks on Tuscarora, but most sites were empty. Owl and Crooked were burnt but recovering. At Tarry I waited for a family to clear the landing. Two children under 8 by my guess, dad hauling a monstrous boat, mom lugging an equally impressive pack. I was in awe of their grit and patience. I was jealous of their parenting power, but I am here for something I can’t find with other people.
The Mora-Little Saganaga portage is one of the most beautiful I have seen in BWCA, but I hurried over it. I knew I would see it on the return, and today was about making miles. I fell on the last leg down the last hill, but Lady Luck saved me from anything more than wounded pride. I gulped down a lunch of jerky, cheese and crackers, scarfing some trail mix and slamming another BeFree scoop of water.
Little Saganaga was long, slowly building some chop, and a precious glimpse of heavenly beauty. I love that lake, dotted with islands and graced with long, hidden bays like little fingers poking into the deep green.
I made the Elton ponds by 1:00 and encountered eight wonder women headed the other way. It must have been some camp group, denoted by matching sweatshirts and ponderous wooden portage boxes. Three barges lumbered past, each carried by a smaller girl. I felt like a sheepish giant carrying my 28lb Advantage.
By Mawka I was beat, but I wanted more. The Fee site was mediocre, a widowmaker falling OUT of camp, the landing mucky. But as I have often thought, the worst BWCA camp is miles better than some state park postage stamp, surrounded by slamming car trunks and the dull noise of humanity. The mosquitoes were Amazonian on the last portage, making it easy to settle for the relatively bugless site. After hanging the Nemo and hammock, I braved the mud for a swim, still hot from the 11 hour paddle.
My Texas State Chili (Packit Gourmet) was excellent, but I found myself wondering why I take hot food at the height of summer. Starburst dessert and a bump of whiskey finished my day. I know I have done it right when I sit down hungry and wash dishes satisfied.
I reviewed the day. My new organization worked well (camp chair and paddle strapped under seat pedestal, rods and reels in tubes strapped to gunales, crocs strapped to rear thwart). The homemade yoke worked, but it needs refinement. A better pad and some way to keep it from rolling would really improve it. I made notes about using the wooden yoke off the Seneca.
At dusk, a pleasant breeze was blowing from the east. At home, that would mean rain. Here, it lulls me to sleep, my last thoughts full of the quiet disbelief that I am here, alone, and I get to do this for 8 days.
I slept great, the long paddle and complete silence only slowly letting me rise from the deep dark of pure slumber. In the complete peace found with oatmeal, coffee, and no human sound, the morning was still, the heat of the day just beyond but the cool swamp night air lingering. I was on the water at 7; brilliant blue skies promised sweaty portages and the unique joy of late afternoon swims.
Fee to Boulder is some of the most remote BWCA territory I have yet to see. The portages are overgrown, your feet hidden by ferns, the canoe consistently scrapping growth old and new. It doesn’t feel like a busy place; I know I shared one portage with a moose; its tracks were clear on the trail.
The view of Boulder Lake, after the long portage, strikes suddenly, the wide, shallow shelf inviting a quiet sit in the water. I could spend the rest of my life at such a place, looking over the broad expanse of glinting blue edged by deep old green.
Boulder was peaceful, rejuvenating, a lake I shouldn’t have just paddled through. Someday I will go back. The portages between Boulder and Adams were severely impacted by the low water. The last torture of beaver dams and swampy channels sapped my strength, reminding me of my over-exertion the day before. As I followed the last track out into Adams, it shallowed. Mud flat terror gripped me; stuck on the muck, the paddle plunging deep without resistance, I shuffled my ass with unique desperation. Once I was finally free, I was ready to settle for whatever site I found. I knew the island site was celebrated, but had it not been the first I found, I would have camped elsewhere.
And it was worth every painful stroke. The island invites with a gentle landing, a long rock shelf and a gradual rise to the kitchen. Sheltered by a few trees but still offering lake views, the kitchen captures all the classical elements of BWCA. After unloading, I took the first of many swims. Between my life jacket and the crocs, I could float just off a big rock, cooling down in what had become a hot afternoon.
After camp was set, I rested, finding the perfect shade spot to read and soak up the quiet. I am convinced that those are hours that God doesn’t count, timeless moments where the bustle of daily life is forgotten, the deep imprints of modernity slowly soothed. I cooked ramen noodles, soaking it up with fry bread and ghee, too tired to fish; the hot evening lacked angling promise regardless.
The backside of the island rises to a large rock outcropping. Sweeping views north bend my knees, drawing long gazes and deep thoughts. The rock was warm, and a perfect swell stretched my lower back when I layed down and thanked God for everything. I was struck by how wilderness canoeing is deeply wonderful and achingly hard - both physically and mentally. The dwindling twilight brought on an emotional roller-coaster I haven’t felt before. I was deeply moved, but I was struck by the absence of anyone to share it with. However, I wondered - would I have felt such intense joy if I wasn’t alone? The paradox of the solo.
I paddled before coffee. A morning like this is a gift from God to remind me of where I am at and why I am here. There is a unique reef to the northeast of the island that I had spied the night before. I trolled towards it, picking up an eater pike just short. Casts across with a silver Mepps consistently enticed strikes, bass of unremarkable size. Several beasts were spotted just hanging back - I decided to wait for dusk to try for them.
I paddled to the south east corner, a marvelous mess of islands and bays. There is a camp down there somewhere, but I didn’t find it. The first bass of any size comes from casting deep at minnows skipping on the surface. With a solid eater in the boat, I turned back for shore and a real breakfast.
Pancakes and bacon are my favorite canoe country breakfast. Maple syrup shots and ghee butter round out the luxuries. My new pan, a hard adonized aluminum Firebox, works wonderfully, as does the new strategy of mixing the batter in the ziploc. The plan for the day, charted out over coffee at the lake side, consisted of naps, books, short paddles and long swims.
I am happy to report that I executed the plan perfectly.
By late afternoon, the heat had really built. I found a shady spot high on the north side bluff. One canoe spooked me in early evening - a pair fishing that was returning to the SE camp that I never found. Adams is such a lake that someone else on it is rare enough to notice. I felt an intense guilt at my reaction - who are these people to be on my lake? It marked over 48 hours without seeing another person.
Dinner was the bass and potatoes garnished with olives and onions. There isn’t another meal in any other place I have ever enjoyed more. A decent breeze blew up, warm but refreshing for the day’s heat. I finished the meal on the north side, hoping to catalog the collage of colors a northern twilight would paint on the opposite shore. It was a stunning display, an intensely beautiful scene that can’t be replicated by human acts, thus proving our place in the great expanse of the universe. For the first time, I played some music lightly, and the soft piano echoed the evening bird song. It was a time for poetry and promise, purpose and potential.
My dusk paddle took me back to the promising reef. This time I slowly fished Zulu’s, drifting as quiet as possible, still feeling huge, loud and out of place. After several small nibbles that plucked at my plastic, a big strike spooked me. A feisty bronzeback danced to the boat; a quick lift over the gunale and I lipped the 18 incher. I know breaking 20 is the goal, but anything over 17 is enough for me to celebrate. Released back to the deep, the brute still haunts my dreams.
Chasing bass took me to true dark. Getting out of a boat after an hour of fishing, in the dark, trying to be quiet as every bump and drop echoes across the lake, is humbling. At my arrival at the Nemo, disaster struck. The evening breeze had blown up the edges of my bug screen. After my hurried entry, I was shocked to find it full of mosquitos. Looking down with my headlamp, I was stunned by the shadows - there were so many bloodsuckers, I could see their shadows racing along the ground. Panic set in. What do I do? The previous two nights I had heard the swarm, a constant buzz that only faded by early morning. In a rush of adrenaline, I tried to reset the tarp and screens, but it was futile. I donned my bug shirt and tried to sit down at the lake, hoping the meager remaining breeze would offer some respite. Again, failure. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I bundled up in the hammock, wrapping it tightly. For the first time in my experience, I realized why the bug shirt came with gloves. The constant buzzing kept me awake, and the occasional sticker thrust in a gap of my armor.
By lunch time, my desperate thoughts of escape and rapid retreat had faded. I lowered the Nemo and weighted the edge with rocks. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky this hadn’t happened before, saved only by early to bed times and windless nights.
It was hot, and for the first time I noticed smoke in the air. The sunsets and dawns had been spectacular, and I realized that, in part, the northern forest fires contributed to the twice a day bedazzlement. I swam in a foggy despair, hoping my next night would avoid the nightmare of the last. Between swims, I chased the shade around the pines, reading, relaxing, writing. I realized there wasn’t anything to find out here; I travelled all this way to realize that everything I need, everything I am looking for, I have always had. Here, I can find it within myself more easily, and I hoped to bottle it up, save it for staff meetings and traffic jams, for the interminable process of grading essays, for the mindless plodding of civilized life. Here, I can more easily find and hold my deep WHY, and with such knowledge, I can survive, like Nietzche said, any HOW.
Shepherds Pie for dinner, although I could barely stomach it with the heat that lingered. I swam just before bed, but was sure to get screen side before the swarm. I waited in abject fear, but the windless twilight and my copious rocks made the difference. I feel asleep hot but unbitten.
Adams to Little Sag (5) 17.5 miles
Happy birthday America! Despite all of your troubles, you are extraordinary and in the great roll of the universal dice, I wouldn’t have wanted to be born anywhere else. I thank all of those who came before me, my family included, for all they did to make this day possible - for me to stand on this rock ledge as daylight fills the smoky sky and know this sense of complete freedom.
Another breakfast of pancakes and bacon helped me plan my day. I would paddle south, enjoy the Adams-Beaver portage, find my way to River Lake, perhaps dip into Malberg, but end somewhere in the Pan- Mawka chain. It was ambitious, and the heat already haunting the morning mists promised a hot paddle.
The Beaver-Adams portage didn’t disappoint. Climbing the west cliff in the early heat of morning broke a sweat that was 100% worth the effort. How does rock like this form? The steep, undulating smooth face climbs inexorably, broken by stubborn life clinging in cracks, scrub pines roots splayed across granite.
The Beaver end balances with a eastern face far less accessible. I regret not climbing it, but the cool swamp cedar air lulled me into a late morning snack. I could have slept perched on my pack, looking south down the long, narrow bay crowded by tall pines and piercing blue skies. I steadily paddled and portaged to River Lake. At the west access to Malberg, the heat of early afternoon and the growing wind dissuaded me from any tangential exploration. I plodded on. The Makwa cliffs were stunning, but I was so spent by then that I just captured a zoomed in shot across the lake. Somewhere after River, my heart had settled on staying on Little Sag. The summer before, with my 8 year old daughter and 75 yr old father, I had explored the lake over three days. We pulled up our first canoe country lake trout and I fondly remembered island camps that I wished to explore.
At the Elton portage, I met an elderly man headed the other way. His deliberate competence at the landing, his efficient packing and portaging, and his clearly earned physical shape left a strong impression. To be honest, I am obese by most definitions, and if I hope to ever match his stately performance, I need to change my daily life in radical ways. He was a man that didn’t worry about finding motivation; he had developed a far more valuable skill - the art of discipline. Even months later, I remain inspired by his silent example.
By late afternoon, I had found a pleasant island site (816). It was tight, but the weather radio called for storms, and the deep, old growth tent sites offered the perfect protection for the Nemo. I fished without real passion, not really eager to clean dinner, the pack still full of Packit meals. The heat was killing my appetite, and the pack wasn’t lightening up like it should.
I swam just before bed again, the peaceful float of jacket and Crocs making me fantasize about sleeping in that cool escape. I still suffered from intense anxiety about the Nemo, fearing the intense nightly onslaught. My last thoughts are of my family. I am so used to the constant buzz of young, active daughters, and the hurried pace of two full-time workers (plus my night teaching). The deep silence reminds me of the peace that I can find anywhere in remembrance of the irreplaceable joy of their presence. I fall asleep knowing I am the luckiest man alive.
My first thoughts as I rose this morning were of smoke.
Little Sag is a big lake, big enough for the far shore to be nearly obscured by a haze. The difference between smoke and fog is one of minute but indefinable details. One hints at mystery and promise; the other warns of invisible looming danger.
Oatmeal and coffee greet the sunrise. My goals were simple - enjoy the Little Sag- Mora portage, catch some fish for dinner, and stay cool. I found myself guilty of the great canoe country sin. I was rushing through lakes, myopically focused on the next point, the next portage, the next choice. This trip was supposed to be about losing that mindfulness, about finding a natural pace and rhythm that wasn’t defined by artificial constraints. Today I was determined to slow down.
I was offered my first opportunity early. Just as I paddled into the final bay, a flurry of splashes drew my attention. Deep in the bay, a swarm of loons scurried across the surface. I have never witnessed so many in one place. Nor have I ever observed such odd behavior. Chasing each other, random dives and quick returns, the posse was full of energy and verve. They paid me no attention, coming close enough to reveal those gorgeous details. Red eyes, the green ring neck. Close, we remember that this is a bird of prey, finely tuned by a deadly purpose. I spent an hour watching, drifting in the light breeze, finally released from the curse of the time table.
At the Little Sag-Mora portage, I quickly lugged the gear, but spent an hour walking the falls. The low water invited close inspection, the rock smoothed by an eternity of life rushing to its next home. There is something surreal here that can’t be captured in a photo or with a pen. It is the kind of place that makes you think about your own death without the common edge of horror. Here is a place I could stay forever and meet the end of the world. If I live right, my kids will spread my ashes here some day, and it is only the intense peace of this place that makes such thoughts comforting.
I trolled my way across Mora, catching several good eaters, but I wasn’t ready to slow down the perfect glide of every stroke with a stringer over the side. I decided the fishing warranted more casts, so as I drifted east I also cast a second rig towards shore. The idea of a double is enticing until it actually happens in a solo boat designed for speed. However, I didn’t learn from my first close call. I hooked something more substantial just as I hit the first island east. As I tried to determine if it is a snag or a fish I will remember, I turned a little too far back. The dump happened in slow motion. I knew I was going a long time before I reached the point of no return, but it felt inevitable. The canoe swamped, most of the gear remaining in the boat. I slowly pulled it all to shore, a little submerged point and an exposed shelf offering the perfect place to regain my pride and dry off. Of course, the first boat in the day paddled by offering to help. I thanked them for the offer, but besides the lost gear (a fishing rod and my glasses) I was no worse for wear. However, the spill convinced me to find the closest camp and check the packs.
The island site on Mora is wonderful, not just for the respite it offered a water-soaked fool. A nice landing, a kitchen cupped by cedars but offering a unrestricted view across the lake, and a plethora of hammock trees crown its pleasantries. After dropping off gear and spreading it to dry, I paddled up the north bay. Casting a spinnerbait, I caught numberless eater pike. Paddling up wind, I would only cast at the most attractive spots, and every log and submerged boulder rewarded my efforts. Drifting downwind, every fourth cast sparked a response, and I knew the special kind of disbelief rarely offered in the wild.
A dinner of pike and potatoes helped me forget the dump; the wrecked weather radio was a constant reminder, like a sore tooth I couldn’t help nudging. Ziplocs are not a waterproof solution. From now on, all electronics are going in the drybox. Evening swims and a complete repacking took up the daylight. With the heavy cedars, I knew I needed to retreat early and have a well-prepared defense. The swarm’s intense buzz was terrifying, but I remained safely ensconced in my cocoon, hot but happy to be free of Mother Nature’s fiercest terrorists.
I slept well despite the heat, but again I awoke to a smoky haze. I missed the weather radio, my mind racing to the absolute worst case scenarios. Pancakes and bacon calmed me as I thought about the day. I knew I could paddle completely out, but I feared tackling the Tusc-Missing Link monster so late in the day, even more so with the nightmarish threat of a forest fire. I was slow to pack this morning as it started to sink in - I am close to leaving.
The portage to Tarry starts with an impossible landing. Imagine boulders the size of cars stacked right into a six foot deep plunge. I can’t imagine how “dry footers” handle this. It would be easier to flip the boat and toss the floating gear up.
Crooked reminds me again of my desire to camp on it, although I have always just paddled through. It was burned over some time ago, but it is dotted with steep islands, and some day I will explore its surprises.
By the time I was to Tuscarora, the oppressive heat had sapped my strength, and I knew the mile portage on the other side would be too much. The first point in the lake was open, and I knew I would enjoy a final peaceful night before returning to reality. I ended the quick day there, swimming away the afternoon.
All day the smoke built; at times, the far shore was hazy. I cast from shore dispiritedly, almost out of boredom or guilt. I find myself fishing less and less on these trips. A lone hammer handle struck, tenacious even in the afternoon heat. I didn’t have the heart to clean him. A few boats passed, but I expected much more traffic on the holiday. Perhaps with the country slowly reopening, the masses have returned to its pre-covid pastimes. It is an afternoon for baseball, corn on the cob and ice cream.
By evening, I was not interested in a fire of any kind, but all my meals required flame. I managed to use the stove one last time; I had decided to jet out early, counting on Cliff bars and nuts to get me out. The Packit Tuscan Beef Stew was delicious; I simply lost all appetite in the heat.
I awoke before dawn the last morning. I wanted one last chance at the big one. I hadn’t really hit the casting hard, and Tuscarora promised pike and lake trout, although with the heat I doubted I would find any of the latter.
I paddled east to the nearest island. The wind quartered and I had to pull full to slip leeward of a rocky island dotted with green scrub and a lonely sentinel pine. As I reached quiet water, a sharp drop off beckoned. The Mepps slapped the water loudly. As it sunk, the sound swallowed by the grey water and already forgotten, I had to count by breaths to keep from reeling too soon. I imagined the silver tumble down a drowned cliff face. The first reel pulled hard and firm: the blades were free and clear. The hit is always unexpected - even when weather, structure, lure and cast align with the perfect certainty of a pike striking. Hard and low, the first surge always over-promises, but when he stayed deep and turned for big water, a lump formed in the back of my throat. For the first time, I felt the heady mix of fear and wonder that cloaks big fish like a morning fog. The canoe swang and the leviathan started to rise. The first deep flash stirs the imagination even more. Knicks in the line, bent swivels and rusty hooks all haunted me. The second run tested drag and patience. By now, I am holding a paddle in one hand, trying to stay leeward as I choked down on the rod, using my forearm to release the building rhythmic pressure. The surges were shorter each time, but frayed lines test frayed nerves. The wide back, like a submarine just surfaced, immediately sapped my faith in actually landing the fish. One wishes for a gaff and some crew at times like this - or a shotgun. I was almost paralyzed by the remorse I would feel if no one else saw this fish. Black green and slab wide, the pike just rested for the next round, eyeing me like a fighter across the ring that is planning a knockout. In the brief pause, I dared a picture. Putting a glove on with one hand while staring down a monster is neither easy nor enjoyable, but the idea of lipping that toothy jaw unmanned me. By the time it was in the boat, I was second guessing the whole endeavor. A live pike in a canoe - with rods, lures, and lunch all within an easy flip and surge of 3+ feet of green muscle - is an invitation to use my dump bag. A Boundary Waters pike pushes you right to the edge, right to the moment you have to use your “hush fishy.” It won’t stop until you kill it - just the way it has always lived, hunted and died. Any less would disrespect its single-minded purpose, beautiful in its simplicity. Thankfully, the lure ripped loose, and with a lucky, desperate shovel, I dumped the slimy monster back into the depths. He paused on the surface; I could sense his disappointment that I hadn’t flipped, that he didn’t get one last bite. With a single sudden surge, he was gone. Swimming would never be the same. A big fish is the perfect way to end a trip. I knew I didn’t deserve it, but I promised to remember how grateful I felt, exhausted by the struggle, covered in slime, blood and glory. The mile over the Tuscarora-Missing Link passed quickly, the smoke driving me on, the smell of victory lingering over my fishy hands. I was at the Round dock by 2. The truck registered 102 on start up. By Grand Marais, it was 93. In a blink, my trip was over. I drove to Duluth, and after a hotel shower, a big steak, and more than a few cold beers, I bought a gallon of milk and sprawled in the cold sheets. My last thoughts that night were of regrets, points I didn’t paddle past, bays I left unexplored, miles I left in the tank.
I spent several hours at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center in Ashland, Wisconsin. It was well worth it. From the geology of the Canadian Shield, the Native American culture and loss, the economy and trials of early settlers, the whole history of this place I have come to love was laid out.
I stopped at Escanaba, drawn by another hotel and the thought of that breakfast in the morning. As the sun fell, the traffic on US 41 roared in my ears and I couldn't believe just three nights ago I was swinging on a point in the middle of nowhere.