BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
July 11 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 17
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
The 1st Big Trip
September 01, 2006
Saganaga Lake Only
Number of Days:
We awoke at Gopher’s apartment in Duluth early in the morning planning on getting to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail as early as we could. We wanted to be on the water and into a site before they were all taken. We loaded up my car and crammed into it before heading to McDonald’s for an “on the road” breakfast.
The drive up the North Shore was fantastic and we made a small stop (for gas and last minute supplies – candy bars and Mountain Dew) at the Holiday station in Grand Marais before driving up the Gunflint Trail. It had been many years for me and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. The road was just as twisty as I remembered but seemed so much shorter. The 56-mile length seemed to fly by as we all talked excitedly about the forthcoming trip.
This was Gopher and Matt’s first time up the Gunflint and they both seemed impressed at the landscape. While both had been up Highway 61 (all the way to Canada) before, this was a different beast altogether. Small offshoot roads, mailboxes to unseen cabins, Ugly Baby Bait and the Windigo Bar all seemed to be out of place in our modern society. You feel like you are stepping back to a time that none of us know. The entire drive felt like those Colman Camping commercials that you see on TV of families from the 1960’s taking their vacations. Both Gopher and Matt seemed to be excited and a little bit trepidatious about being this far from civilization.
We arrived at Seagull Outfitters at about noon on Friday where we signed our permit paperwork and picked up our canoe; a Wenonah Minnesota 3. We each had our own backpacking packs and had already repackaged our food in my old Coast Guard Sea-bag so the only thing was to get “the talk” about camping in the wilderness and to set off. Debbie, the owner of Seagull Outfitters wished us well before we loaded up into one of their visitor transport trucks (an old Chevy Suburban) and headed to the put-in spot.
We put in at the boat landing for Saganaga Lake (which is about a quarter mile South of the Saganaga EP #55), loaded the packs into the canoe in the most logical way would could figure, and struck off for our first “Big Trip” into the BWCA. None of us were ready for the tipsiness of a Kevlar Canoe! I was in the bow, Matt took the jump seat and Gopher manned the stern. Unstable is the word! We rocked, we rolled, we damn near dumped before we found out (which took about an hour) how to sit and how to maintain balance in the canoe. Interesting ride, I must admit.
After an hour of paddling and figuring out how this canoe worked we reached the narrows before heading into Big Sag proper. Motorboats passed us and, while they slowed down (causing fewer wakes for canoeists) we had a hard time with the balance of the canoe. It felt like we were going to dump every time even the smallest wave passed us. I, being in the bow, took the brunt a little bit more than Matt and Gopher. I felt unstable the entire time we were in the boat; the motion being enhanced by the narrowness of the bow of the canoe.
We made it through just fine however and when we finally got onto Big Sag the waters were almost calm as glass. I had stars in my eyes when I saw how untouched the land was. Pristine waters, pristine islands; it was amazing. We slowly paddled by Clark Island before island hopping to Munker Island, where we decided that we would spend our first night. We set up camp, ate dinner (we brought MRE’s that we picked up in Minneapolis) and enjoyed the stars while talking into the night.
I awoke before dawn and climbed out of the tent (a Mountain EXO at the time) to air so fresh I could hardly believe it. Everything was calm. After an hour or two Matt and Gopher awoke and we set about having breakfast (oatmeal and breakfast bars) while looking out over Big Sag.
With breakfast done we packed up camp with the idea that we would head around American Point (Rocky Point on my map) and go into Swamp Lake for our next campsite. As we pushed off I was in charge of reading the map and letting Gopher steer us as Matt provided mid-ship power.
We paddled between Munker Island and Long Island and pointed the bow toward Rocky Point; or, what I thought was Rocky Point. We crossed a very large chunk of Big Sag to an unnamed island in waves that were not really large (large enough for three guys in an unfamiliar canoe), but big enough to make us extra cautious. Once we reached the unnamed island I decided that we had to go straight ahead (unknown to me that it was the Canadian shore of Big Sag) to another island.
We stopped on a small horseshoe shaped island about two-miles north of Cache Bay and wandered for a bit, marveling at the depth of the moss; which was well over ankle deep. Climbing up proved easy but unstable and as I climbed up a large chunk of rock fell down and slammed into Matt’s foot, cutting him in multiple spots and giving him quite a bruise. He would end up having to wear an ACE bandage for the remainder of the trip but was otherwise unhurt.
After we left the island we headed north on Big Sag, unknown to me that we were going in the wrong direction; and into a pretty good headwind. Every point I saw I would declare, “That’s Rocky Point!” only to find out that, no, it was not. We traveled up the lake for hours into the wind before coming to another small island off of a point. We stopped to get our bearings and discovered that we were actually at a point off of Eagles Nest Island; a very, very long way from Rocky Point. Well into the Canadian side of Big Sag. We still make jokes about my mistake.
With my mistake figured out, and a lunch of MRE’s in our bellies, we hit the water once again and made our way back to where we were intending to go; Rocky Point. We had the luck of the wind being at our backs for the return trip so it took no time at all. We followed the Canadian shore and crossed the opening to Cache Bay with no problems before heading into the Swamp Lake area.
As we rounded a bend in a narrow part of the lake (right before the 5 rod portage into Swamp Lake proper) we were fortunate to come across a Bull Moose munching away at some grass in the lake. Only his head was above the water. I looked down to see that the water itself was only about a foot deep and was amazed at the depth of the muck on the bottom; deep enough to submerge a bull moose! We took a chance after we realized how deep the water was and paddled to within 15 yards of him so I could take copious amounts of pictures.
After a bit the moose got fed up with us being too close to him and he trotted off into the woods and we kept on our merry way. We had by this time started to notice that most of the campsites were packed. Not with a tent or two, but with dozens. We were informed, by Seagull Outfitters, that there was a fire in the area (to be later named the Cavity Lake Fire) but we were not aware that there was supposed to be this many firefighters camped out on all of the sites.
We checked out all of the sites on Swamp Lake; they were full. We backtracked a bit (back to the area where the moose was) to find a site; there was none. Concerned because it was starting to get late in the day at this point, we started searching around for a place to camp. We checked multiple islands in that area only to find them fully covered with red ants. Our prospects were not looking good and we knew it. All of the sites taken, and no where else to go, we ended up setting up our tent on the portage into Ashdick Lake and camping there for the night. A no-no by BWCA rules but there was nowhere else for us (a group of newbie’s) to go. It was an uncomfortable night but we managed.
We awoke early on Sunday morning and decided to head further into the wilderness via Ashdick Lake. This was to be our first real portage (a 170 rod) and the first real test of the BWCA traveling experience. It sucked! The portage into Ashdick Lake is narrow and not traveled enough to keep the undergrowth at bay. We were told that the portages were wide and, other than being somewhat difficult to manage due to the rocks and other obstacles, relatively easy. They lied. The portage was a pain in the ass due to the few people who obviously use it.
Once on Ashdick we paddled across with no difficulty and made it to the much smaller portage that goes to Ester Lake. We took a small break on the portage, sitting on the soft moss and eating some granola bars and GORP. It was a perfect day; not too hot, not too cold and a crystal clear blue sky above.
With our second portage under our belt we hit Ester Lake with the plan on making it to Hanson Lake to stay for a couple of days. The paddle down was amazing. The waters were calm, the wind was at our backs and the sun was shining down; which proved to be a bad thing as none of us remembered to put on sunscreen the day before. The sunburns were quite interesting. I had burns on my thighs (from hiking my pants up while paddling), Matt had some very interesting “tiger stripes” running across his stomach and Gophers neck and back was looking redder than an apple.
Hanson Lake proved to be the quintessential BWCA Lake for us. Not a soul was around when we arrived, the sun was shining, the waters were crystal clear (affording a view at least 20-feet deep) and the air smelled of Cedar and Pine. It remains one of my favorite lakes to visit in the BWCA.
We set camp and, because it was very warm out, decided to take a swim. The site we chose had a very large rocky point sticking out that was coated in a “slime” (under the waterline), which we used as a slide. We swam for a few hours, having a good time of it all, before we decided to call it a day. We ate dinner (again, MRE’s), sat up and watched the sun set before tucking in for the night.
That night a major storm rolled in and, while it woke me up several times, Matt and Gopher just slept through the entire event.
The sun was out in force again once dawn broke. I was up with the sun once again and sat outside watching the mist rise off of the water. Matt and Gopher arose later in the morning and we had breakfast while we figured out what we wanted to do. Our plan: to stay for another day, do some fishing and, in general, be lazy.
At a little past noon or so (we did not bring watches or any other time keeping devices) a seaplane flew overhead. We marveled at what appeared to be a canoe tied under the wing as it made a few passes. After the third pass or so the plane came in for a landing in the middle of the lake. We watched as a couple of guys climbed out of the plane, untied the canoe, and paddled over to us. They (Forest Rangers) asked us how we were doing and if we knew about the fire (we did) before they began to ask us about campsites for other firefighters that were going to be coming into the area.
We were not ready to give up our site so we told the Forest Rangers about some fantastic sites that we passed the day before on Ester Lake that were empty. I think they could tell that we did not want to move site so they let us be and paddled off to the portage that leads into the PMA areas off Hanson Lake.
We finished off the day by fishing (we ended up catching a boat load of Bass), swimming, eating dinner (the Bass fried up in Shore Lunch) and just gazing off into the sunset again.
We woke up early not sure of where we were heading exactly, but knowing that we should go back to Big Sag. After striking camp we paddled under another cloudless sky up Hanson Lake and Ester Lake. The only thing we knew that we did not want to do was the 170 rod Ashdick Lake portage so we took the 80 rod into Ottertrack Lake with the intention of doing the famous Monument Portage; another 80 rod that follows the Canadian / U.S. boarder.
At the Ottertrack Lake side of the portage we finally came across other BWCA travelers that were not firefighters (we had seen other canoes and passed others on the lakes but this was the first meeting at a portage). It was a little bit of a traffic jam as we waited our turn to unload and hump our gear to Swamp Lake.
Like many others who have come this way, we had to stop, set up my camera tripod and take a photograph of us standing by one of the monoliths that are used to denote the boarder. While these markers are cool looking, I see no reason for them to be there. (Government spending at its finest) We put in again on Swamp Lake and made slow progress as we crossed. Again we saw a moose, though not in the same spot as before, near some of the campsites on Swamp Lake.
We made our way back onto Big Sag and this time followed the American shore where we finally found American Point (Rocky Point). I made it a point to take a mental note of what it looked like for future reference. We ate a quick lunch on the shore (just south of the point) before we headed back into the island thick area that we spent our first night on. Our goal was to stay on Gold Island.
We paddled through the narrow area between Munker and Long Islands again and followed the shore of Long to Gold Island only to find that all of the sites that we could see were taken. We circled Gold Island before heading back toward Munker when we spied an open site on Long Island; we took it before anyone else noticed. At least, that is what I tell myself. In reality, we were just the last boat of the day and got lucky in finding a campsite.
We set up camp, ate dinner (more of those damn MRE’s) and once again went for a swim. The day was long but beautiful and we enjoyed the evening. That night we finally got to see the Cavity Lake Fire. It was illuminating the sky to the south of us with amazing shades of pinks and oranges and appeared to be creating its own weather. Thunderheads directly over the fire spit lightning into the sky. We watched well into the night before finally tucking in.
I woke later in the morning and climbed out of my tent to another perfect day. Across the way, on a small island, I noticed a canoe sitting on the shore. I looked for our canoe and did not see it. At first I panicked, figuring that I was about to go for a swim to retrieve the canoe, but soon noticed that Gopher was on the island as well; having gone for a morning paddle. He arrived back at camp shortly after that bearing a slew of fish for breakfast that we fried up and ate with pleasure.
While I spent the day lounging on my sleeping pad on the shore, reading a book and drawing a bit in my sketch pad, Matt and Gopher took off in the canoe to do some late morning fishing.
They arrived back at camp a few hours later with a few more Bass, which we ended up frying that night for dinner. Most of the day was spent in camp, relaxing and doing nothing. We ate granola bars, other snack items, and GORP. The GORP, it seems, is a favorite food of the local Gray Jays and we spent a few hours feeding them. At first just throwing a nut on the ground and watching the birds pick it up before getting more adventurous and flying up to sit on my opened palm and picking nuts out of my hand.
That night we again sat on the shore watching the fire in the distance and the stars directly overhead. This was to be our last night in the BWCA so we made the best of it and did absolutely nothing. We finished off the MRE’s, ate more fried Bass, most of the GORP and snacks and headed off to bed.
We awoke to overcast skies which were threatening to dump all over our camp so we packed up camp very early, loaded up the canoe, and hit the water; hoping to beat the rain to our final destination.
By this time we had gotten pretty good at paddling the Wenonah Minnesota 3 and could get the boat going pretty fast. We crossed the remaining parts of Big Sag in the most direct way before diving down in the narrow area that leads back to Entry Point #55. The going was fast and we were cutting through the wakes of the motorboats like old paddling pros. We were a mile away when it finally decided to rain on it. It was not a hard rain, more of a sprinkling, but we had no intention on paddling in it so we hit the motorboat landing fast and got off of the water.
We called Seagull Outfitters from there and they arrived in their old Chevy Suburban in less than 30 minutes. Our gear loaded, our rental canoe racked up, we made our way back to the outfitter. We took great advantage of the showers that Seagull Outfitters provides. A hot shower after a week of bathing in cool lakes is a pleasure that I cannot explain to people who have not alsoexperienced it.
We packed up the car (it was close to, but not quite, noon by this point); wished Debbie and the Seagull staff well and made the drive back into Grand Marais. Sven & Ole’s, being the staple it is, lightened our wallets with cold beer and hot Meat-za Pizza. We wandered around Grand Marais, stopping in at the Ben Franklin, Severtson Gallery and other stores before finally saying good-bye and making the drive back to Duluth.
Once back at Gopher’s we unloaded our gear, changed into our “party” clothes and hit the town for a night of beer, food and fun. I wish I could say more but, I don’t remember it. I hope that we had a great time.
The trip over, Matt and I loaded our gear into my car once again and we took off for home in the Twin Cities. By this time it was pretty well set in stone that we were going to do this trip again. I have always loved camping (Gopher and Matt as well) but doing the Wilderness thing was not something I was ready to fall in love with. We arrived back in the Cities late in the day and I was already planning our next trip.