BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
April 09 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 17
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
Sacred Solitude on Saganaga - Saganaga Lake Base Camp June 2014
June 23, 2014
Number of Days:
The bite of the wilderness bug had proved too powerful for me to resist. Grandpa hadn’t been able to fish like he wanted to on our previous trip, nor did he get to have his long campfires with plenty of music. Quietly taking note of this fact, I set aside money and began to make plans to bring him back. All throughout that fall, winter, and spring, I had been quietly planning another adventure, this time a base camp. I accumulated most of my own gear and made reservations with Seagull Outfitters for a canoe, pack, extra paddle, and bear barrel.
We drove up the day before and stayed the night at the paddlers’ lodge across the street from Seagull Outfitters. Before heading out to the wilderness, we met Don and Carole Germain at Gunflint Lodge for dinner. Don and Carole are the former proprietors of Saganaga Outfitters, located on the channel, and longtime residents of the Gunflint Trail area. They outfitted Grandpa and his school groups back in the 1970s as outlined in Growing Inside Outside. Besides sharing a common passion for the wilderness, we also shared a common bond in Christ with them, so our conversation was enjoyable and edifying from all angles. Following our delicious meal, Don and Carole invited us over to their beautiful home on Gunflint Lake. They had purchased the cabin from the original owner and builder, who devoted a great deal of time to the woodwork inside. They had continued the good work he had started. All of the walls and the floor were beautiful knotty pine, with a big stone fireplace and memorabilia all over the walls. We continued our wonderful conversation in this incredible setting. In the course of the evening, Don, Grandpa and I looked over our map. We had been planning to camp on Red Rock Lake, but a returning party at the outfitters’ had told us there were no walleye to be had there. Don pointed to Englishman Island, on the west shore of Saganaga, and indicated a campsite on the south side. “This is a good site,” he said. “It has good wind exposure which will keep the bugs away, and you can paddle over to Devil’s Walk Bay. There’s good walleye fishing to be had there.” We both immediately decided to take Don’s advice. He told us that it would take us about three hours of paddling to reach the island from the beginning of the channel. As we left to return to the lodge, Don and Carole gave us two beautiful paddles, left over from Saganaga Outfitters when it closed. It was an evening neither Grandpa nor I will ever forget. We drove back to the outfitters simply amazed. A beautiful sunset tinged the horizon as we pulled into the parking lot.
As we hit the water the next morning, a cloudless sky and water calm as a sheet of glass lay before us. There was not a breath of wind in the air. After emerging from the channel, we quietly made our way southwest and began to work our way through the islands, which were more confusing than I had remembered. Slightly bewildered but thankful for the perfect paddling conditions, we emerged from a small narrows and beheld the incredible expanse of the lake, stretching to American Point and beyond. I looked to the north and tried to pick out the small island that had been our refuge from the storm. This view brought back many memories.
“I think that’s American Point up there,” I said. “I know for sure if we cross over to the other side of the lake there, we will be able to get our bearings.” “That’s a long way across,” Grandpa said. “Do you see that campsite over there?” “I do,” I said. “Maybe we should head over there, take a little break, and look over the map a little. Why don’t you pray for guidance, just to be on the safe side?” Grandpa did. As we paddled towards the campsite, I continued to look at the map. I then realized that we were heading for the north side of the very island we were trying to reach. “Grandpa, that’s the island we’re looking for,” I said excitedly. “If we paddle around to the south side, we should find a large campsite in a stand of Norway Pines with a large sand beach.” “Really?” Grandpa responded. “Well, let’s see.” We rounded the southern shore of the island to find a beautiful campsite, sand beach and all, matching Don Germain’s description exactly. “How long did Don say it would take to get here?” I asked, looking at my watch. “Thee hours.” “We’ve been on the water exactly three hours, almost to the second,” I said in disbelief. “That’s expert outfitting advice right there.” I hopped ashore and headed down the portage trail to check out the latrine. All the familiar smells of pine and duff filled my nostrils. The latrine was in excellent condition. It actually wasn’t that crappy.
I returned to Grandpa, who was waiting in the canoe. “It looks like we have our camp site,” I said. “There’s a fire grate here in good shape, a nice pile of kindling, and a great tent site over there.” “I can’t believe we found it,” Grandpa said. “I was ready to go back to the channel and start over. I think it was the prayer that did it.” We unloaded all of the equipment and got organized. Our campsite was on the south side of Englishman Island, located in a beautiful stand of Norway Pines. It was built into the side of a small hill, with a perfect tent pad right at the top. We set up our tent on that site. “This five person tent is going to be perfect for our base camp,” I stated, as we popped the tent up. “For sure,” Grandpa said. “We won’t be fighting for space. Say, we forgot to tie that top string. Can you reach it?” I stood on my tiptoes and tried to reach it, but promptly fell over right onto the tent. Thankfully, no damage was done. After Grandpa stopped laughing, we took the tent down a little, tied the top to the poles, and popped it right back up. We used my hatchet to secure the stakes and the fly. We filled up our water filter bag, scrounged up some firewood, and then ate a little lunch. By this time, we were both hot and sweaty from our hard work.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going in for a swim,” I said. “We’ve got to take advantage of that sand beach.” “You know how rare a sand beach is up here?” Grandpa said as he grabbed his towel and suit. “I do. Now, we have to wear our life jackets.” Grandpa complained a little but I insisted. We dropped our towels on shore and began to wade slowly into the lake. It was a little chilly and took some getting used to, but it was so clear and refreshing that I finally gave in and ducked myself under water. “Come on Grandpa!” I yelled. “It feels great.” Grandpa finally splashed in. “Whoo!” he shouted. “That’s cold!” He soaped himself off and then waded ashore to get dressed. I followed suit, pun intended. “I’m going to take a nap, Joe,” Grandpa stated. “Go right ahead,” I responded. “That’s the beauty of a base camp. We have no schedule to keep. You can take a nap whenever you want.”
While Grandpa rested, I sat in the chair we brought, pulled out my copy of The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd Olson, and began to read. Instinctively, I turned to my favorite chapter and read these words:
“Until the day when I discovered it, my life had been dominated by the search for a perfect wilderness lake. Always before me was the ideal, a place not only remote, not only of great beauty, but possessed of an intangible quality and spirit that typified to me all of the unbroken north beyond all roads. Time and again I thought I had found it, but always there was something wrong, some vague, unreasoned lack of shape or size, some totally unexplainable aspect involved with the threat of accessibility. Above all, I wanted vistas that controlled not only moonrises and sunsets, but the northern lights and the white mists of the river mouths at dawn…Then one golden day I came to Saganaga.”
I closed the book and began to admire the view before me. The afternoon sun was high in the sky. Its light brought out the sandy brown of the ground, the deep green of the shrubs and needles, and the smoky red of the bark gracing the Norway pines. From our vantage point on the southern side of the island, I beheld a panoramic view of Red Rock Bay, studded by islands. I stood up and, looking to the east, identified Long and Gold Islands. To the north, I could see the Canadian shoreline. The lake was calm as a sheet of glass, the water’s surface indistinguishable from the sky.
Sitting back in my chair, I took a deep breath. The alpine smells again filled my nostrils, pure oxygen straight from the source. I closed my eyes and listened. Birds chirped and sang to each other from the trees, and a squirrel chattered in his burrow. The ubiquitous whiny hum of the mosquitoes made me grateful for the bug spray and head net I had on. Not a single sound of civilization broke the music of the singing wilderness, not a plane, not a motor, not a human voice. This was the silence I had been longing for and dreaming of. This was ecstasy. This was peace.
Grandpa woke up from his nap, and we settled in to dinner. I built a fire in the grate and lit it up. It was a long time coming, but eventually we got enough heat to roast our hot dogs over the flames. I pulled out my guitar and we enjoyed the pleasure of some good music. After the fire died down, we cleaned up dinner and headed out for a fishing run around the island, which proved unfruitful. After lounging around camp for a while, we settled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep as the loons began to call farther out on the lake. The night noises were just starting as I drifted off.
I set up my propane stove and lit it up, setting my coffee pot on top. After downing a cup, I got out French toast bagels, butter, and a pack of bacon, and after a little work had a delicious breakfast for Grandpa and I. “This is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had!” Grandpa said as he enjoyed his meal. “You’re far too kind,” I said. “I’ve never actually cooked a real meal before.” “I’d never have guessed,” he said as he took another bite of his French toast bagel. “This is just fantastic. This is better than real French toast.” I love how encouraging Grandpa is. After we finished cleaning up, we enjoyed our devotional time together. Grandpa read his Daily Bread out loud, and then I read a passage of Scripture. Then, we both began to pray together, back and forth, using ACTS (Admiration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), the structure he had taught me. We praised God, thanked Him for his many blessings, and covered our family and friends in prayer.
I cannot describe to you the incredible feeling I had sitting out in the wilderness with my greatest spiritual mentor and brother in Christ talking to God together. This is why I had brought Grandpa alone with me to the Boundary Waters. I had graduated from high school and wanted to spend this time together in prayer for my future. The memories of this prayer time are etched in my mind forever and will remain with me as I venture off into the great unknown.
“Amen,” I said. “This is why I brought you here, Grandpa.” “That was great,” he said. “I hope our family and friends at home are feeling the effects of our prayers right now,” I stated. A few drops of rain bounced off the brim of my hat. “Funny how God held back the rain until our prayer time was done,” Grandpa said as we headed for the tent. The few drops turned into a downpour, but the tent was nice and dry. I picked up my guitar and began to pick out some melodies. A group of canoes paddled by our campsite and paused to listen to my music. When I was done, I leaned over to the tent door and hollered a hello. “That was great music!” the guy yelled. “Thanks!” “Stay dry!” I called back, as they paddled away. “That’s not something that happens every day,” I chuckled as Grandpa and I settled in for a nap.
The rain finally stopped. We burst out of the tent and enjoyed lunch, and then decided to head for Devil’s Walk Bay to catch some fish. We stayed in the shelter of Long and Gold Islands before crossing one stretch of open water to reach the far shoreline and the entrance to the bay, marked by a distinctive rock outcropping.
A strong wind was blowing, and Saganaga Lake was pretty choppy. Since we had nothing in the canoe other than a spare paddle and a few personal items, the canoe was riding bow high. It was everything Grandpa could do to keep the canoe on course. I had forgotten what it meant to ride a rough sea in a canoe, but I soon remembered how to keep my balance and paddle with endurance. We soon reached the bay, where the water was calmer. The sky threatened to rain again but nothing materialized. I turned to Grandpa with a smirk. “Saganaga’s a lot like a woman,” I said. “One minute she’s calm and smooth and the next minute she gets her period and gets a little rough.” Grandpa laughed.
We began to work the fingers of Devil’s Walk. Our hooks were baited with leeches, purchased from Seagull Outfitters. Grandpa caught a small bass as we worked one inlet. “First fish of the trip!” I said triumphantly as he slipped it on the stringer. We found the spot Don Germain had told us about and began to cast, but never got as much as a nibble. Both of us were desperately hoping to hit on a school of walleye. We decided to troll along one more shoreline in the bay on the way back to camp. Grandpa paddled, while I watched my bobber. All of a sudden, I felt a tug on my hook, and the bobber darted underwater. I set the hook and the fight was on. I reeled with confidence and soon got him up to the side of the boat, where Grandpa was ready with the net. My fish was also a bass, about fourteen inches long. “This is a really nice small mouth,” Grandpa said. “He’ll taste delicious when we cook him up tonight.” Grandpa slipped him on the stringer with the other one, and we headed back to camp. The wind was at our back now and not as strong, so the paddle back to camp was fairly straightforward and simple.
Back at camp, we filleted up the fish. I had to make Grandpa wear his fishing gloves so he wouldn’t cut himself, like he did last time. He finally convinced me to let him keep them off so he wouldn’t screw up the fillet. We soon had four good bass fillets in the bag to enjoy that evening for dinner. When suppertime came, I again coaxed a fire to life to cook our hot dogs. Then, I got out the stove. I washed the fillets, covered them with Shore Station (a flour mixture), and fried them in butter. Grandpa applied a generous amount of tartar sauce and took a bite. “There’s nothing like fish fresh out of the lake,” he said contentedly. After tasting my fillet, I heartily agreed.
We practically licked our plates clean and then used soap and water to finish the job. After our camp was all cleaned up, we played a game of gin rummy, which Grandpa promptly won. I read a passage from Sigurd Olson, and then we both turned in.
We then loaded up the canoe and headed across to Devil’s Walk Bay. Don Germain had told us of a good spot for walleye in Devil’s Walk. If I had known how long of a paddle this was, I would have considered camping much closer given the way we were fishing. Grandpa seemed to be under the impression that they would be hitting topwater baits at high noon. (Bless his heart). I’m sure they would have been hitting much better at night.
We paddled through the bay and headed for Roy Lake, which Deb had told us was a fantastic bass lake. Grandpa dropped his paddle, so we had to go back and get it – always bring a spare paddle. We somehow found a small pathway through a marsh that took us to the portage landing. The portage was overgrown and it would have been difficult to get a canoe over it. We walked the portage and braved some buggy conditions while I took a few casts from shore. A fish grabbed my lure but I failed to set the hook properly and it got away. After some minor trouble turning the canoe around, we headed back to troll our spot in the bay again. After no success, we decided to fish the shoreline on the way out. We were set up with bobbers and leeches again.
Grandpa soon landed a nice sized bass, quite a bit bigger than the one I had caught yesterday. He was happy as a clam and said it was one of the biggest bass he’d ever caught. I was jealous, so we trolled the shoreline again. Another bass hit my lure and missed. We turned around the canoe for a second pass, and he hit and missed again. I turned to Grandpa and said, “That fish is on my plate tonight.” Pass three produced no hits. On the fourth pass he hit and missed again. I waited. He hit again. I hooked him on the third hit and pulled him in – another bass, just a tad fatter than Grandpa’s. We got him on the stringer and headed back for camp.
Neither of us had eaten any lunch other than a Clif bar or two, but the wilderness has a way of reducing life to its simplest terms, as both Thoreau and Sigurd Olson have emphasized. We decided to wait for dinner to eat, so after filleting the fish (and cutting his finger again, thankfully not a bad cut), Dinner that night was chicken wild rice soup, cooked with my new stove which screwed onto a can of Coleman gas (the brand name fails me at the moment). It was delicious and went well with our fish fillets, which again turned out great except for the fattest one, which Grandpa commented was a little like sushi. We got dinner all cleaned up.
Grandpa sat in camp for a while, and I bush whacked around Englishman Island for a while to take some pictures. It was a lovely evening, so as the sun was setting the two of us headed out to check out another fishing spot on the shoreline just northwest of our camp site. The lake was calm as glass, and with the Ross light hitting the red pines I couldn’t have asked for a better evening. Grandpa got a soft hit at one point (probably a walleye) but otherwise we were skunked. We headed back to our campsite and hit the hay after a long and satisfying day.
After an uneventful paddle, we pulled the canoe up on shore and strolled through the camp site. It was much more wooded with some enormous white pines that clearly had been there for many years. We then set up our fishing poles with some rapalas and began trolling through the bay. I hooked onto a hammer handle northern. It put up a good fight, every bit as strong as my bass, and was fun to catch.
We paddled back to camp and headed in for a swim. The water was cold but refreshing after a long paddle, maybe a half hour each way with the wind. I couldn’t get enough of our camp site – the perfect sand beach made for a wonderful swim.
As I was relaxing in the water, my crazy grandpa walked out of the water, walked over to the clothes line, took off all of his clothes, and hung them up on the line. “Get in the tent!” I yelled. “There’s no one out here, Joe, it’s fine!” he said with a smirk. Thankfully, he headed in and got dressed. I didn’t want some tow boat to come screaming by and seeing him au natural on shore. We only saw a handful of boats on the lake throughout our trip and were able to get plenty of quiet times in listening to the sounds of the forest.
The wind picked up later in the day. For some reason it made me a little antsy and I carefully packed up all of our gear after our dinner, which was made up of odds and ends left over from the previous dinners. We sat and talked, enjoying the sun set, before turning in early so we could get an early start while Saganaga was calm.
This was a wonderful trip in so many ways. It was the perfect way for me to unwind after a long and busy spring finishing high school and working very hard in the yard. The bass fishing was awesome. And I felt that I could approach my college journey knowing that Grandpa and I had fully covered it in prayer. I am so grateful that I can still travel up north with my greatest spiritual mentor and best friend. I love you Grandpa!
I also continue to love Saganaga. It remains my favorite BWCA lake so far. I don’t call myself Saganaga Joe for nothing!