BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
July 04 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 11
Elevation: 1205 feet
Seagull Lake - 54
The trip of a lifetime!
June 23, 2019
Saganaga Lake Only (55A)
Number of Days:
Zac arrived in the early afternoon and Tony was picked up at the airport after a delay or two. Once back at the homestead, packs were emptied as we tried to cut weight and eliminate any duplicate gear that was not necessary and preparations were finalized for the following mornings departure. We were to pick Nate up in Janesville the following morning at 7am. The excitement for the upcoming trip was palpable.
“Are We There Yet?”
We left Elgin, IL at 6am on our way to Janesville, WI to pick up the fourth and final member (Nate) of our party before continuing up to Tuscarora Outfitters on the Gunflint trail. The drive was not bad and we made good time stopping off in Rice Lake, WI at the Culvers for lunch. Once back on the road we were making good time until our not so brief impromptu tour of Duluth. The Grandmas marathon was taking place and it appeared that the inmates were running the asylum. The detour signs were misplaced and we spent 45 minutes trying to get around and through Duluth and continue on our way. We stopped in Grand Marinas for leeches and to fill up the Jeep before making the final 40 or so miles to the outfitter. We arrived at Tuscarora Outfitters about 5pm and checked in with the proprietors Andy and Ada. Andy was a true professional and we settled our account, discussed our trip plans and asked for insider tips on where the good campsites and where the good fishing spots were. We dropped our gear off at bunkhouse number 4 and decided to head to the trail center for dinner and some cold brew. On our way back we stopped off at the Laurentian divide to check it out and take some quick pictures. Once back at the bunkhouse, we went through our packs one last time to cut out any duplicates and weight before heading out the next morning. Lunch at Culvers in Rice Lake, WI Lake Superior, making progress Nothern MN - Tunnel!! Northern MN - still driving..... Bunkhouse #4, we made it!! Laurentian Divide BWCA sunset BWCA sunset
“Its Go Time!”
The alarm went off at 6:30am and we all got up and got going making sure to stop off for the last meal that we did not have to prepare ourselves for the next four and a half days. The French toast, fruit and coffee hit the spot. I think there was sausage as well but the meal was consumed to fast in the excitement and anticipation of what the day would hold that I cannot remember for sure. Either way it was delicious. Once breakfast was finished, we were eager to be on our way. We met our driver, loaded the van and trailer for the short ride to our launching spot and got some last-minute advice for our trip. On the way a question was posed to our driver, was there was a party that he didn’t think would make it. Hilarity would ensue. What we learned is to never put an unwrapped half eaten chocolate bar in the pocket of your life vest if you want to be taken seriously in the boundary waters.
Our permit was for entry point number 54, Blankenburg landing which we reached shortly before 9am. We unloaded and took some pictures. We assigned tasks, and by this, I mean that Nate was to be our navigator. Pairings for the first day canoes were Tony and Nate, with Nate in the bow. Eric and Zac with Zac in the bow. At approximately 9am we pushed off dry land and embarked on an adventure that would be challenging, rewarding, and a dream come true. A bucket list trip about to be scratched off. The plan was to head west into the prevailing wind on the “smaller” water and ride the prevailing wind back on the eastern portion of our loop. Time would tell how wise this decision was. The day was overcast and gray but up to that point no rain and little to no wind so we considered ourselves lucky. The first day we planned to put some miles behind us and get into the BWCA and then take it a little easier as the trip progressed. We planned to get to Ogishkemuncie (Ogish) and find a campsite there. But who goes to the BWCA just to paddle and portage? So, our first stop would be the palisades on Sea Gull Lake. It was said that the views were all encompassing and could not be rivaled in the BWCA. The views did not disappoint. If you want to feel small, climb to the top while another adventurer is canoeing below and see how small they are. The views were awesome, lots of pictures were taken. We saw a bald eagle nest with a juvenile perched just above the nest, it was pretty cool. We ran into a youth group that were rock climbing up the palisades face, wished them the best of luck and continued on our way. It took us about 3 hours to get across Sea Gull Lake, including our stop at the palisades. The portage from Sea Gull to Alpine was easy to find, our first portage!!! This would be our second longest portage of the trip, a pretty flat not to bad 100 rod portage. Before we left on the trip, we decided to single portage if we could and this was the testing ground. Well…… we did it. Zac taking the heaviest load of his pack and a full food pack, probably close to 100+lbs in all. The canoes were surprisingly light!! Kevlar all the way!! Totally worth the extra cost. We knocked out that portage with our confidence soaring and loving every minute of it! Little did we know what was in store for us within the next couple of hours. After repacking the canoes and setting out on Alpine we decided to find a campsite and eat a little lunch, summer sausage sandwiches with an orange. It was about 12:30-1pmish. This was our first look at what a BWCA campsite would be like and even though we did not stay at this one, we had a look around. During our look around we came across the latrine and I couldn’t help but think about having to use one in the middle of the night (thankfully this did not happen). It is basically a pit with a seat in the middle of the woods, no roof, no walls, no nothing. It was literally doing your business in nature when nature calls. After our walk around we loaded back up and continued on our way to the next portage, Alpine to Jasper.
We arrived at the portage shortly after another group that had just started to portage so we hung back a ways and waited patiently. At this point it started to drizzle so we got out the rain gear and put it on, jackets only. If we knew the amount and intensity of water that was about to come from the sky, we probably would have broken out the rain pants as well. We got everything tightened down that we could think of to make sure things stayed dry. As soon as the other group cleared their last bit of gear, we headed into the portage, and then it started to rain. This portage, although a short 45 rods, was a lot more challenging than the first one. There was a pretty steep grade up and over rock and the rain (which was coming down pretty good) did not help. With all this in mind we decided to double portage to lessen the chance of anyone taking a spill. This proved to be the right choice and we never single portaged again the remainder of the trip. We hammered out this portage pretty quickly and set out across Jasper, our spirits still pretty high. About half way through Jasper it rained hard, so hard that it was starting to fill up our canoes. I have never been in a rain like that……... ever. Our rain jackets started to fail, water got in through the sleeves, down the neck, up the back, I have never been so wet in my entire life. It was probably raining 1 inch every 30 mins. I only say this because Jasper is not that big of a lake and it maybe took us 45 mins to cross and we easily had 2 inches of water in the bottom of our canoe. The portage from Jasper to Kingfisher was easy to spot as another group had their tarp set up and 3 of their party were hunkered down under the tarp while the other three were taking shelter standing up under one of their canoes. We calmly paddled up, said our hello’s and started up the portage trail, another short 25 rod portage. It was a little up and down, harder than the first portage but easier than the portage into Jasper. It was still raining ridiculously hard and the portage trail we were walking along was filling up. It was ankle deep water as the rain collected on the trail and ran down the slope. As we were heading back to get the rest of our gear, the group that we passed had started to portage as well. Apparently, we inspired them to get their act in gear and move, a little rain wasn’t going to slow us down!! However, this did clog up the portage trail and the launching spot onto Kingfisher. After some maneuvering, we had our canoes loaded and we were off again. Next stop Ogishkemuncie, our destination for the day. On our way across Kingfisher it continued to rain even harder (HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSILBE!!!!). Kingfisher is an even smaller lake than Jasper (20 mins paddle) and we had a good amount of water in the bottom of our canoe after crossing the little lake. The portage came quick enough and we were off to Ogish. The portage was 38 rods, a little tight at the top heading west from Kingfisher into Ogish but opened up and goes along a stream to the landing at Ogish. There it was decided that we would take the first campsite we could find which happened to be one that Andy had recommended when we were talking through our trip route back at the outfitter. Into the canoes we went and off we paddled to get to the site as soon as humanly possible, we were getting tired of being wet. The rain did start to let up a bit while we were on the portage and was back to what seemed like a drizzle when we got to the campsite. We found the site relatively easily and luck was with us as it was unoccupied. We quickly staked our claim and went about trying to figure out what to do next. This being our first BWCA campsite experience we were green and unorganized, not because there was a lack of outdoors experience but because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We got the tarp hung and everything settled underneath it. At this point we were huddled together; everyone had that blank 1,000-yard stare and no one said a thing. If you could read minds you probably would have seen a lot of #$*@# @#*@ *#@%. What a way to start our trip!! But no one complained, we sat there a little while to collect our thoughts and to figure out what to do next. There was no way we were going to give up on this trip. We were all in!!
Site # 792 is on the North side of Ogish and was untouched by any of the recent fires that burned through the area in the last couple of decades. This was important as I have a hammock. A little-known fact about hammocks is that you need trees to hang them. The site is spread out with a couple of good tent pads away from the main part of the site. And as mentioned, plenty of trees to hang a hammock. The landing is a bit slick and more than one of us almost took a spill into the water. The USFS fire pit was in a large opening which made hanging a tarp over the fire next to impossible unless you have a very long rope. The latrine was about 50 yards up the hill behind the campsite and was very buggy. This is a great spot for a larger group. Over all I would give this site a 4 out of 5.
While we were standing under the tarp, it was decided the next thing would be to gather firewood, so off we went. There was little firewood close so we had to do some exploring to find some. Once we had a pile going, Zac started the fire under the tarp on a bed of pine boroughs and then carried it to the fire pit. It was now that we found out that Nate did not have a waterproof rain jacket and that his jacket was only water resistant, not waterproof. This had us a little worried about hypothermia but nothing came of it. We never had a raging fire but we got it going well enough to dry out a little. This was all going on while there was a lull in the rain. With the fire going we were going to make dinner. We were supposed to have steaks over the fire our first night. We fished them out of the food pack they were still frozen solid, guess that’s not going to work. Instead we fired up the camp stove and made the Louisiana red beans & rice with sausage. It was delicious and warm, just what the doctor ordered. After dinner was consumed and dishes cleaned up, we set up the tents/hammock, hung the food, changed and went to bed.
We learned a couple of things this first day, as they say experience is the best teacher. First mistake we made was not getting the tents/hammock/bear rope set up while it was light out and not raining……… lesson learned. Another lesson learned, don’t keep your headlamp in your rain jacket pocket while canoeing on lake through a monsoon like rain. Luckily, I had a backup flashlight. The headlamp would make its BWCA debut a couple of nights later after it dried out. And finally, waterproof. Enough said……
Distance traveled: 11 miles (0.65 miles portage) ~Sea Gull Lake, Alpine Lake, Jasper Lake, Kingfisher Lake, Ogishkemuncie Lake The group in the van on the way to entry point #54A, Seagull Lake Entry point #54A, Seagull Lake Entry point #54A, Seagull Lake Just before pushing off BWCA welcome sign, we have arrived!! First view of the BWCA after passing the welcome sign Canoeing, I think we are going to be doing this alot..... Just a quick water break The Palisades from below The view from the top of the Palisades Another view from the top of the Palisades One more view from the top of the Palisades more canoeing, your going to see this alot First Portage - Seagull Lake side First portage - Alpine Lake side day 1 lunch on Alpine just before the monster rain storm...... and why the next pictures will be of the campsite campsite 1 looking from the shore inland campsite 1 - one of the tent pads
“We Got This”
“Day 2 morning”……. Started a little later for some of us. Zac was up first around 7/7:30am and roamed the campsite until the rest of us started stirring about 2 hours later. Apparently, we were all tired from the day before. Zac was to be our chef this morning and made us a breakfast of egg sandwiches on bagels with cheese and sausage washed down with a bit of coffee. Food seems to taste so much better in the wilds! It was still overcast but not raining so we took the time to explore the campsite a little more and do some fishing. Zac was after the BWCA grand slam and was eager to get started. The water off the campsite was a promising mix of deeper water, bays and rip rap. Artificial and leeches on slip bobbers were tried but to no avail, the first fish of the trip would have to wait. We started packing up camp around 10:30 and were back on the water around noon. Pairings were Eric and Nate, Nate in the bow. Tony and Zac, Zac in the bow. We had a shorter day planned and only wanted to get to South Arm Knife Lake, approximately 6 miles. The day started out smooth enough as we paddled the rest of Ogish although it rained off and on but nothing like the day before. Next stop, Annie Lake. The portage was a short 15 rods and was done in no time. Annie is a small lake and we were across in less than thirty minutes and after another short 15 rod portage we were on Jenny Lake. On Jenny Lake we ran across our first friendly loon. We had been seeing them fly by as we paddled throughout our trip so far but had not encountered one on the water. We slowed down and got to within 20 feet or so for some good pictures before it had enough of us and disappeared under the water. Off to Eddy lake. The portage was another 15 rods. Eddy is another smaller lake and we were across in no time. At the portage landing we had to wait a short while for a boy scout troop to arrange their gear out of the way before they went to visit Eddy Falls. Once this was done, we started the 25 rod portage to South Arm Knife Lake. The portage started out flat but then dropped off into a steep decline as you got closer to South Arm Knife. There was a large tree that fell across the trail but was still high enough where you could squeak under it with the canoe in the portage position. Once we finished the portage and arranged our gear so it was out of the way, we went to visit Eddy Falls. It is a short hike off the portage trail and totally worth it. Not the most beautiful waterfall we would see on our trip but impressive nonetheless. We took some pictures and returned to the portage landing, loaded up and were on our way. At this point we noticed the wind was starting to pick up. It really is amazing how the smaller water protects you from the wind compared to the larger water. We paddled along the southern shore to another campsite Andy had circled on our map. We arrived at the site around 4pm.
Site # 2037, the landing is a narrow stretch of beach that was probably 15 feet across and comprised of smaller gravel rock. There is a short trail that leads up to the campsite, the USFS fire grate is in a small opening and had a few “windows” to the lake below. There were two tent pads that we could see and a few places to hang a hammock. There was a good place to hang the bear rope a short way off and ample places to fish from shore. The latrine is about 75 yards behind the campsite and has a small “window” through the trees to the lake, you can see out but you can’t see in. If you have a north or west wind it can get through and keeps the bugs down. We dubbed it the “serene latrine”. The site is more compressed than the others we saw but overall not too bad. I would give this campsite 3 stars.
Working off the lessons learned from the previous day, the tarp was set up first and then immediately afterwards the tents and hammock. All this in the daylight. It is amazing how much easier it is to set things up when it is light out, and dry for that matter. We stretched ropes and hung everything up to dry and set to the task of finding and cutting firewood. Dinner was steaks over the campfire, mashed potatoes and green beans. After dinner was consumed and dishes washed, we had the chance to relax a little and do some fishing. Tony set up his lounging hammock and Zac broke the 0’fer by catching the first fish of the trip, a decent sized smallmouth bass! Nate and Zac fished for some time using slip bobbers and leeches and added a few more smallmouth to the count. Zac then switched to the “pike slayer” and started on his search for the second leg of his quest for the BWCA grand slam. During the fishing excitement, Nate got snagged on a rock and decided that instead of losing the jig and leech he was going to paddle around and free himself. Well…… due to there being no weight in the canoe and only one man paddling the wind took hold and he could not get back. So, we had to execute a rescue operation. There was really no danger to anyone, just another lesson learned about canoes and how they operate. We had some sprinkles off and on that evening before the clouds started to break up and we were excited at the possibility of seeing our first BWCA sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds did not fully cooperate and we only got a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. Still we got some decent pictures. The night was ended around the campfire drinking hot cocoa and talking. We made progress today, things started to dry out and our spirits were lifting. We had been through the worst of it, nothing but downhill from here…. Or so we thought.
Distance traveled: 5 miles (0.22 miles portage) ~Ogishkemuncie Lake, Annie Lake, Jenny Lake, Eddy Lake, South Arm Knife Lake boats still float so we are canoeing since you cannot canoe on land, we are portaging ....and canoeing again... loon crossing Eddy Falls Eddy Falls, Zac is at the top so you have some sort of scale Campsite landing the main part of the campsite, note all the stuff hanging out to dry the firegrate one of the tent pads BWCA sunset, kind of..... the sun wants to come out..... despite the clouds the views are spectacular!!!
“Getting into A Rhythm”
The night before we decided that with the wind blowing as it was, we wanted to get an earlier start than the previous day. We deemed Zac as our alarm clock as he woke up earlier than the rest of us and he got us going. We had breakfast of Oatmeal, dried fruit and coffee (coffee being the most important of course). After everything was cleaned up and camp was packed away, we were back on the water at about 10am. Parings were Eric and Tony, Tony in the bow. Zac and Nate, Nate in the bow. The plan for the day was to paddle to Ester and find a campsite there and rest up for a longer stretch the next day.
The skies were partly cloudy with the wind out of the west and blowing steady. This was our first encounter with the wind on big water. The wind was blowing from the west right down the length of Knife lake churning the lake into a wavy playground. There were a couple of white caps but nothing to worrisome. We paddled into the waves until we were protected by an island, made an about face and rode the waves into an arm of Knife heading north and protected from the wind. Nate and Zac decided that they were going to troll for lake trout today as we were in a prime location to do so. This is where Zac conquered leg two of the BWCA grand slam, although not with a lake trout. Zac hooked into a decent sized northern pike. Although the pike was not boated due to the net being too small, we considered it a catch. The portage to Hanson from Knife was a little more difficult to find but our trusty navigator got us where we needed to be on time with no delays or backtracking. It really is amazing how you can navigate in the BWCA with just a map, we didn’t even use a compass! Although I would recommend bring a compass for sure.
The portage from Knife to Hanson was to be our longest portage of the trip and only portage for the day. Being 120 rods, we were eager to get a move on. This was hands down one of the most beautiful places on earth I have ever seen. About 30 seconds into the portage you are walking along a bubbling stream and serenaded by running water, few sounds in nature are more calming and relaxing. About half way you come to this waterfall next to some absolutely enormous Cedar trees. The place was small and intimate and perfect. The waterfall was framed in by some downed trees and the water was white, a stark contrast to the surrounding foliage and made the waterfall stand out. The trail is relatively flat until you reach the waterfall and then you take a right turn and climb towards the top of the waterfall before the trail flattens out again. A little way further you start a short decline with the trailing running past a beaver damn and the pond that was created. Although we did not see any beavers it was not from lack of trying. As you continue on the trail it winds its way up again through some stands of pine studded with groupings of purple and white flowers and onto a sharp decline to the landing on Hanson lake. This was my favorite portage.
Once on Hanson, it was pretty much a straight shot to Ester lake. Hanson is a little longer north to south so we hugged the western shore and stayed out of the wind for the most part. Zac and Nate trolled the whole way with no luck. In thinking over our trolling strategy, we were probably paddling to fast. Guestimating the distance traveled and the amount of time traveling, we were probably traveling at a crisp average of 5 miles per hour. This is way too fast as far as trolling is concerned which would answer why we caught no fish in this manner. I looked into it after we got back to civilization and one-person paddling is more than enough to get the speed needed for trolling. Any future trips when trolling, one person paddling and one fishing. It took us about an hour or so to go the length of Hanson and reach the portage. The word portage is a little misleading here as there is a channel you can float through to reach Ester. No leaving the canoe necessary. Tony and I waited on the other side of the channel while we waited for Zac and Nate to catch up as they were zigzagging all over the place while trolling. They probably paddled more than a mile farther than Tony and myself. Once Zac and Nate caught up, we noticed that the clouds were starting to build so we should find a campsite sooner rather than later. There is a larger island on Ester with two campsites on it. We tethered the canoes at a spot on the shore and sent Nate in to do some recon. We were starting to wonder what became of Nate when he came back and directed us to a landing spot for the campsite that was to be ours for the night which happened to be another campsite Andy circled on our map.
Site # 2009 is on the north west side of the island and it was awesome! It was roomy, spacious, with views for days. The site actually has 2 landings although we did not know this when we got there. It was only after we got everything unloaded and we started planning where to set everything up that we found the other landing which was right around the point a little farther down the shore. Although, tread with caution, the rocks at this second landing were very slippery. There were two levels to this campsite, a lower level and an upper level. On the upper level there is a large opening in the trees looking to the northwest towards the shore of Ester which has some high cliffs showing the rock face. The cliffs are probably several hundred feet high and were impressive to look at. The USFS fire grate is in an opening on the upper level and you can sit and look out this “window” at the rock face of these cliffs and relax. There are plenty of places to set up a tent and numerous trees for a hammock. The latrine is about 40 yards off the back of the campsite up the hill. From this vantage point, you can gaze down on the campsite. This site is 5 stars and hands down the best campsite of our trip.
Again, we set up the tarp and then our shelters shortly thereafter. Gathered and prepared some firewood and just started to relax when the first rumbles of thunder were heard. The storm was impressive rolling in from the northwest over the aforementioned rockface cliffs. During this time, we fried up yesterday’s lunch of turkey wieners with buns and fruit and sat under the tarp waiting for things to clear. Fortunately, the storm had more bark than bite and the after about 45 minutes of rain it rolled away and we were treated to the most vibrant and impressive rainbow I have ever seen. There was a double rainbow at one point. Obviously with a rainbow you need the sun and we were in for a BWCA sunset that would rival any I had ever seen anywhere. The setting, a little chop on the water, the clouds, the color, everything was beautiful. Words cannot begin to describe it. Dinner was chicken and dumplings with peas. This meal took a little while to prepare so in the down time some fishing was done. There were several smallmouths caught on leeches and slip bobbers but nothing else. Once dinner was consumed and cleaned up, we started up a fire and tried to wait out the stars. This was our first BWCA night that was clear and we were hoping for a view of the heavens in all their glory. Unfortunately, this did not happen. I am not sure if we didn’t stay up long enough or if we were too close to the summer solstice but the stars did not come out to shine. We went to bed about 11pm.
Distance traveled: 5 miles (0.38 miles portage) ~South Arm Knife Lake, Hanson Lake, Ester Lake some morning fishing Breakfast packing up ready to portage! North arm of the South Arm of Knife Lake longest portage of the trip and absolutely the most beautiful the view from underneath the canoe check out the impressive size of these trees!!! the waterfall on this portage is beautiful just beautiful find the canoe the beaver pond on the portage Hanson side of the portage the upper level of the campsite the lower level of the campsite here comes more rain!! waiting out the rain with some games Rainbow!! make that a double!! so bright!! The pot of gold was at the bottom of our lake!! The rock cliffs opposite the campsite landing the best sunset of the trip the air was so clear, the colors so crisp note the loon Just after sunset our version of a nightcap
“The Band Saga-Death”
Our human alarm clock woke us up about 7am to get an early push for the day. Our plan was to travel to Saganaga and with this being a lake closer to entry/exit points we wanted to get there as early as possible to make sure we got a campsite. Breakfast was an egg & bacon hash brown scramble washed down with coffee. After breakfast was cleaned up, we broke camp we were on the water again. Back to day one pairings, Tony and Nate, with Nate in the bow. Eric and Zac with Zac in the bow. The sun was shining with fluffy clouds and floating on a background of BWCA blue. There was wind but we were protected on the small waters of our first two lakes, Ester and Ottertrack. Little did we know how lucky we were to be headed west with the wind. Zac did a little trolling as we headed through the remainder of Ester with no luck. The portage to Ottertrack was a little harder to find but our trusty navigator again put us in the right spot. A total of only 80 rods, this was to be the hardest portage of the trip. You immediately start up a steep incline for about 50 yards before you level off for a short while before you start the decline which also had a pretty steep pitch. After bottoming out in the muck and mud that was at the bottom, you had to hurdle downed trees before you start to climb out and up before cresting and heading back down to the landing onto Ottertrack lake. This was where our only mishap took place as a pant leg got snagged on a down tree and someone almost took a spill. A day or two previously when we adopted the double portaging method, we started taking our packs first to get a lay of the land before going back to get the canoes. In this particular instance it paid off.
Ottertrack lake was no big deal and we crossed it relatively quickly. The waves were a lot like what we experienced on South Arm Knife and we were old hats at this and mastered the waves no problem. The last half of Ottertrack lake was pretty cool as you travel down a sandy channel with flowering lily pads on one side (Canada) and reeds everywhere. We were basically traveling the border. It was calm in the back waters and as we approached our next portage and we had to wait. This was no big deal as we tethered our canoes together and enjoyed the sunshine. We could tell we were getting closer to civilization as we were starting to encounter more and more people. One group that we met on the portage to Swamp Lake, also known as monument portage, told us that they had a hard time paddling west into the wind on Saganaga and that the wind was increasing as the day wore on. As we listened, we were glad about having the wind at our back for that portion of our trip.
Monument portage is 80 rods and is an up and down trail straddling the Canada/US border with three different little monuments placed along the border. The word monument is misleading as they maybe stand three feet tall. They are modeled after the Washington Monument and have Canada spelled out on one side and the United States spelled out on the other. We took pictures at one and then carried on our way to Swamp Lake. In a short while we were back on the water again and crossed Swamp in relatively short order. This is where we ran into our only trouble navigating and finding where we needed to go. The portage from Swamp lake onto Saganaga Lake is a small 5 rod portage that did not look like any of the other portages we encountered the whole trip. There was only a small opening that allowed a small stream to flow between the two bodies of water. We ended up going past it and found ourselves in a small back bay on Swamp looking over the map to figure out where we were. Once we figured it out and backtracked, we were only off maybe an eighth of a mile so really not bad at all. When we found the portage we didn’t even bother to unload the canoes. We picked them up and carried them across and into Saganaga. Now the real fun could start!
Saganaga is one of the largest lakes in the BWCA and is known to be finicky and temperamental and Saganaga was true to its reputation. The first part of Saganaga heading west from Swamp is really a series of smaller water connected by larger channels and did offer some protection from the wind. At this point we were still blissfully unaware of the wind and waves on the main part of the lake. After looking at the map we decided to stop at a campsite for lunch before getting out on the main part of the lake as we could see the white caps and knew we were in for a challenge. We stopped for about a half hour fueled up and got back to it. The next 2 hours or so would be the toughest paddling we experienced. Our saving grace was that the wind was at our backs. We saw zero canoes going against the wind and we passed more than one campsite on Saganaga with people just sitting there and staring into space, much like we did our first day. As mentioned previously we had the wind to our backs. I say this because a majority of the waves were pushing us as long as we kept the canoe perpendicular to the waves. This is great in theory but harder in practice as we also had rogue waves that would hit us at an angle on the back of the canoe and turn the canoe broadside to the east bound waves. When this happened, the person in the back of the canoe had to really torque on the paddle turned rudder to get the canoe back in position before to many waves hit broadside. I think this would happen once every minute or so and it was a constant struggle. We hugged the shore or at least tried to stay within a decent distance just in case something or someone fell overboard or capsized, we would have a chance to recover it or swim to shore. It felt like we were going so slow when in reality we were moving at a pretty good clip because we had the wind helping us out. And it didn’t help that every "next point" we saw was American Point. We kept small goals and once we accomplished that goal, we made the next small goal. Not soon enough we were around American point and out of the wind. It was amazing the difference it made. Later in our conversation we gave Saganaga the nickname SagaDeath. We estimated the winds were a sustained 15mph with gusts to 25mph with 3-foot rollers. It was quite the experience.
Once we finally got around American Point, we slowed for a stretch and then got back after it to get to the campsite we wanted. I was exhausted both physically and mentally after this and just wanted to get to a campsite and relax. Our goal was one of the four sites on Long Island, preferably one on the western shore making our paddle out the next morning that much easier. As we wove our way in-between the islands, we noticed motorboats parked at some of the campsites and hoped for the best. At last we arrived at site number 395.
Site # 395 is a beautiful site on the western shore of Long Island. The site was out of the wind and had a landing on the channel between Long Island and the island directly to the south and one landing facing east towards the main part of the lake. The site was large and had two parts with plenty of places for tents and trees for hanging hammocks as well as the bear rope. This would be our second favorite site of the trip. The part right off the south landing was pretty open and spacious and this is the place we elected to set up the tents and hammock. A short walk down the path which leads you to the other part of the site which was pretty sheltered and had the USFS fire grate. The logs that were arranged around the fire grate had you looking east over the fire grate through a window in the woods out over the lake. It was beautiful. The latrine was over a small rise towards the back of this part of the site and down the trail in the woods. It was a little darker back there and buggy.
We set up the tarp and then the shelters and hung a bunch of stuff out to dry as we still hadn’t fully dried out from our day one deluge. At this point we were a well-oiled machine and had everything set up, wood chopped and supper going before to long. Nate and Tony decided that since we had some extra time a quick rinse off in the water was in order. It was cold, or so I gathered from their reactions. The swim was short lived and then fishing started. Funny thing is we didn’t catch any fish where they were swimming, probably due to the 4 days of funk that were left in the water……. We managed to pull in a couple smaller smallmouths and then settled around the fire to relax. The weather at this point was perfect. Tony had located a small “bump” on the southeastern side of the island and a perfect place to hang his hammock. We lounged and relaxed and enjoyed our last night in the BWCA.
Distance traveled 9 miles (0.52 miles portage) ~Ester Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Saganaga Lake back on the water again toughest portage on the trip canoeing the channel to monument portage waiting for our turn to portage in the protected channel soaking up the sun yup, there were 3 of these of varying sizes before things got a little wavey let the waves begin!! Zac and I are back there somewhere.... round American Point, safety!! Note the whitecaps in the background with the waves behind us, on to our campsite one part of the campsite the path to the other side still drying out from day 1 the firegrate BWCA sunset BWCA sunset, note the calm water. Where was that 5 hours ago!!??
“The Easy Day”
We were up again early this morning knowing that not only did we have about 6 miles to the take out point but also a 12-hour drive back to Illinois to accomplish. It was going to be a long day. The morning was still and warm with clear skies and was the perfect sendoff from the BWCA. We packed up, had a quick breakfast and pushed off heading east into the rising sun. Saganaga lake was like glass with the occasional motorboat sending ripples across the surface. Most of the motorboats were considerate and slowed to minimize their wake but a couple caused us to curse and change course to take the wake head on. Boat assignments were Nate and Eric with Eric in the back and Tony and Zac with Tony in the back. Nate and Eric headed out first and got three hundred yards or so into the lake when Nate yelled to slow up but not soon enough as the canoe was grounded on a boulder in the middle of what looked to be a deep channel. Upon further observation there was a boulder field extending north from one of the islands and we happened to find it. Needless to say, Zac and Tony gave it a wide berth to avoid any and all hard surfaces. As we paddled closer to the take out point we started to zig zag between the islands. It was almost like we wanted to prolong leaving the BWCA as long as possible. Once we left Saganaga we had to follow a channel or river down a way to exit point #55. Along the way we saw other outfitters and some impressive establishments. But none were as impressive as the bald eagle perched atop a tall dead tree watching us leave. We paddled as close as we could snapping pictures and saying goodbye as we entered back into civilization. We found the takeout point easily enough and made the call to come get picked up. We unpacked the canoes and made sure everything was accounted for and ready to be loaded up once our ride showed up. After the quick ride back to Tuscarora, we were greeted by warm showers and it was good to be clean. Then it was back on the road for the long ride back. We ended up staying a night in Eau Claire, WI and finishing the drive the next day.
Distance traveled: 6 miles (no portages) ~Saganaga Lake we woke to a calm morning time to go our last morning on the water, the weather could not have been better The BWCA sent us out in style BWCA guardian exit point 55, Saganaga Lake. Sadly our trip has come to an end. on the way back to Tuscarora for some warm showers the road home... go figure, its raining...
What a trip! What started out as a pipe dream in January, was realized by the efforts of a few good men in June. During the trip we faced adversity masked as a monsoon like rain of which this world has rarely seen, wind and waves and all were conquered. I have heard and read that you can’t quite put into words the range of emotions you go through as you travel the BWCA and it is true. A trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is something you just have to experience for yourself. And when you come out the other side, and you will, you have this feeling of accomplishment that leaves you satisfied yet wanting more. In my 40 years of life there is no place like it. I will be back!!!