BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 23 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 15
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
The Little Brothers Trip - Maraboeuf and Saganaga Falls June-July 2015
June 27, 2015
Number of Days:
It became clear throughout our trip that God had his watchful eye on us right from the get go. We decided to take an alternate route to the freeway that Jon quipped would only save about twenty seconds. As we drove down MN 252 a deer pranced in the median as we drove by. “Think about what might have happened if we had been twenty seconds later,” I said. “Quit sending chills up my spine,” Jon responded.
We stopped for breakfast at the Village Inn in Wyoming and an ice cream cone in Grand Marais. After looking around Lake Superior Trading Post, skipping a few rocks in the bay, and buying some minnows at the gas station, we headed up the Gunflint Trail. The drive was uneventful and beautiful, and we enjoyed our fifties and sixties folk and John Denver on the way along with great conversation.
As we neared the outfitters, let’s just say the little brothers were bouncing off the walls. Grandpa and I were sitting in front. Jesse and Jon were in the back seat all pumped up about the good fishing they were going to experience. As we rounded the last curves, Jesse exclaimed, “This is going to change our lives!” I turned to Grandpa with a huge smile on my face and said, “I think our little brothers are getting excited back there.” I knew we had done the right thing bringing them along.
We arrived at Seagull Outfitters around 4:30 PM, settled up with them, and unloaded our car. Once again we were impressed by the staff Debbie had hired. Along with our canoe and bear barrel, I purchased a used #4 pack to hold all our sleeping bags and pads. Seeing as our portages were small and short, we had consciously packed a little heavier. We also bought leeches from them. After we had finished settling up, we headed back down the Gunflint Trail to Gunflint Lodge for dinner. The food and service was wonderful, and we enjoyed looking out over the lake and beach.
Returning to Seagull Outfitters, we got our things organized in the bunk house. Earlier Jon had been a little depressed because he thought he left his rain suit and tennis shoes in his car. I was positive and bet Jon an ice cream cone that they had been packed. Sure enough they turned up in his stuff. The humor that so defines Grandpa and his brothers also began to emerge. As I was packing, Jon asked me why I had brought three harmonicas. “So I have one in each key,” I responded.” “Of course, why did I even ask?” he responded, and we all laughed. After a card game of five hundred, we turned in for the night. I once again enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of the Minnesota North Woods. There is no shortage of beautiful woods where I live in Washington. You can find mountains within an hour from Seattle. However, others have commented that the Minnesota woods and lakes are more intimate, and I agree. I identified the song of the white-throated sparrow immediately as well as a bittern booming from the marsh behind the outfitters.
After a delicious breakfast of coffee and granola bars, Jon, Jesse, Grandpa and I loaded all of our things in the trailer and were shuttled to 81 Landing where Zach, our tow boat driver, was waiting to take us to Saganaga Falls. This was my first experience with a tow boat, and I was a little apprehensive, due to the amount of money I had paid for it and the way I thought it might affect my perception of the wilderness, as outlined in Sigurd Olson’s “Flying In” in The Singing Wilderness. My concerns were quickly dispelled. In fifteen minutes, we traveled a distance that would have otherwise taken us about three hours and left us tired for our first portage. Although I will only take one when I need to, it was perfect for our needs given our trip goals and Grandpa and Jon being up there in years.
I was back in the wilderness the moment my feet hit the trail of the 35 rod portage between Saganaga Falls and the Granite River. My heart sang every minute of the first portage. I boosted the pack on my shoulders myself in the old-fashioned way, pulling it on my knees, getting my one arm in the strap and tossing it over to my other shoulder. Given the amount of travel that the Granite River sees I was surprised at the condition of the portage. It was very tight, rocky and muddy in places, and on top of that the portage clearing crews clearly had not visited. It was severely overgrown. Still, I enjoyed it. Near the end of the portage the trail crosses a very tricky rock face that descends quickly, so I had to watch my footing. After dropping the pack off at the other end, I headed back, passing Jon, Grandpa and Jesse on the way. The bear barrel was so heavy that Jon and Grandpa were carrying it together, one on each side.
Now came the real test of my portaging abilities: Could I carry the canoe myself? On my previous portaging trip, someone had assisted me in loading the canoe and balancing it while I was carrying it. I grabbed one end of the aluminum canoe and allowed the other end to rest on shore. Then, I turned the canoe over and walked down the gunwales to the portage yoke. After securing the canoe on my shoulders, I headed down the portage, soon reaching the other end. Success!!! I took a picture at the other end and headed back down the trail rejoicing in my accomplishment. I portaged the other canoe the same way, as well as the maiden portage for my Duluth pack. I had come a long way since my first trip two years before.
As we pushed off from the landing with our loaded canoes, the air was still and quiet, and the sun was shining. The only sound came from the white-throated sparrows. This was what I had waited for and dreamed about all throughout the long winter. We paddled the short distance to Horsetail Rapids where our second portage was, observing a nice beaver lodge on the Canadian shoreline. Paddling south against the current was not an issue, as the current is not strong or noticeable except at the falls, rapids, and narrow places (at least at the areas we were in). The water conditions were such that we had to walk the canoes up the rapids to the portage landing. I could not see an easily navigable trail anywhere. The current was fairly strong here so we had to be careful, but made it to the portage landing uneventfully, after maybe a thirty yard walk or so. The 20 rod (probably smaller) portage was much better, and after about twenty minutes we were paddling south down Maraboeuf Lake.
The paddling conditions were perfect, with a gentle breeze, perfect temperature, and the sun shining. I was paddling with Grandpa and had put Jon and Jesse together. About a quarter way down the lake Grandpa asked Jon how he was doing. “I never paddled so hard in my life!” he said, half jokingly and half seriously. Jesse was only eleven and strong for his age, but he wasn’t the paddling machine that I was. Grandpa and I took it easy as we were in no rush, so we stayed together and chatted as we headed for the south end of Maraboeuf Lake, where Deb had recommended a campsite on a little inlet.
As we pulled up, I headed in to check out the campsite. It had a nice fire grate and open area above the water that would be good on buggy nights. The tent pads were large and set back in the woods, and the latrine was in good condition. We decided to make this spot our home for at least two days, maybe more if the fishing was good. Grandpa and Jon set up the big four person Coleman and Jesse and I set up my little (ahem) two person Ozark Trail tent I had bought for thirty dollars. We had transported our tents along with two folding chairs in an old hockey duffel, which worked really well for this purpose. I was interested to see how my little cheap tent would perform. As I was setting up our summer sausage sandwich lunch, Jon headed in skinny dipping, with it being high noon and everything. We all chuckled at his audacity. A few chipmunks were just as audacious as they tried to sneak up on my kitchen counter (a large rock).
After lunch, the rest of us hit the lake for a refreshing swim. I discovered to my chagrin that I had left my swim suit behind. Not being quite as daring as Jon, I decided to just use my underwear instead and give it a good cleaning besides. The water was refreshing and I stayed in for about fifteen minutes before drying up. We then headed out fishing. First we fished the area near our campsite. Debbie had told us about a walleye reef roughly in the vicinity of a very small rock island in the middle of the lake. Jesse got a small bass but that was it. Then, we headed for Devil’s Elbow to the east of us for what we heard was some serious fishing in the currents. We set up our bait and got to work. None of us had any success except for Jesse, who pulled in two huge smallies on a single light green rubber worm. The last of them was the biggest bass I had ever seen. The wind picked up, so we headed for camp and watched some isolated thunderstorms rumble by around us. Grandpa and Jon took a nap.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner of hot dogs over the fire and fresh fish cooked over our stove, with mochas afterwards, a tasty drink created by mixing instant coffee and hot chocolate. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed my surroundings, bugs and all, and identified the songs of more white throated sparrows and a hermit thrush (a first for me). We also heard a moose calling, probably a cow. After a hard fought game of five hundred we headed in to bed. Literally the only downside to our tent pad was the fact that the ground angled, so Jesse and I spent the night sliding downward. I was able to sleep well anyway.
It was lightly raining as I got up. I walked out of the tent and got some hot water going on our stoves for our coffee and hot chocolate. The rain slowly stopped as we ate breakfast. We brought a just add water Bisquick pancake mix along for this day, along with bacon and leftover hot dogs in lieu of sausages. It was absolutely delicious and we all ate heartily along with second cups of coffee. This meal will be a main staple on my trips henceforth. A Canadian gray jay watched us carefully from a tree, and two turtles, one of them for sure a large snapping turtle, swam near our campsite. Jesse also had a conversation with a white throated sparrow across the lake. They were whistling on the same key. It was incredible.
Cleanup was a snap thanks to an idea that I had had the previous year. I was struck by the need to have a large container to hold water for cleaning dishes. To serve this purpose, I bought a normal size contractor bucket at Ace Hardware to use as a camp sink. It was not cumbersome to pack, as I could place things inside it, and it also served as a nice seat. Jon and Grandpa were very helpful in washing and drying the dishes.
We then sat down for our devotional. I read a Bible passage and we prayed together, praising God, thanking Him for His many blessings, and praying for our families back home. Grandpa then told a story about something that had happened the past night. He had heard seven loud splashes in the water and then what he thought was footfalls in our campsite, so he prayed a prayer of protection over us and was able to fall back asleep. Jon and I teased him a little bit as neither of us had heard it. I’m sure that if he did hear something it was a beaver or the moose we had heard calling earlier the previous evening. Either way, we all appreciated God’s protection, especially as I was forced to store the bread in one of the packs outside the bear barrel.
We then returned to Devil’s Elbow to fish again, and worked the current and inlet beyond thoroughly, always being sure to cast toward the American side. Jon caught a decent sized bass which we put on the stringer. Grandpa had lots of hits and lost three Rapalas due to his drag which was not set correctly. I had a hit too, probably a bass, but could not get him to hook on again. I was extensively using a plastic shad minnow that roughly approximates Quetico Mike’s Zulu setup.
Bass were surfacing all around us but we headed back for camp with only one fish. After we were in the American portion of the lake again, Jon and I threw out our lures to troll back in. I was using the shad minnow. We were moving at a pretty good clip when I had a significant hit. A northern jumped behind the canoe and shook the lure out of his mouth. Jon and I immediately turned around and trolled the area again. He hit my lure again and I set the hook. I just about had him to the canoe when he dived into the weeds, wrapped the lure around it, and shook himself off. I was pretty upset about it. We worked the area a few more times, and I had one more hit but did not hook him. By this time Jesse was hollering across the lake for me to come and get lunch, so we headed back in.
After a lunch of summer sausage sandwiches and a rest, we headed out to fish again. Grandpa and I worked the same area where I had lost the northern. I put on a silver Rapala and soon boated a nice northern, maybe twenty-four inches or so. He wasn’t a record but I was happy. I then promptly lost my Rapala to an even bigger hit, probably the one I had lost before, that snapped my line because I did not set my drag right. We brought my first northern back to camp and released him after taking pictures. We then threw out some worms and bobbers while we relaxed from shore. I tossed mine out and turned to set my pole down when both Jon and Grandpa told me that my bobber had gone under. The fish put up a good fight and I finally got her to shore, a nice small mouth which I released. One of our lures stuck near shore and Jesse and Jon headed out to retrieve it. When they returned to shore there was a miscommunication about what to do with the canoe. It flipped and Jon landed in the water. While everyone was okay, we all were bummed that Jon’s cell phone had been unprotected in his pocket and hoped for the best.
Once again we had hot dogs and fish for dinner, and then headed out to work the walleye area one last time, as we had decided to head for Saganaga Falls the next day. Grandpa and I worked the south side of the tiny island. As he was reeling in a blue Rapala, a fish shot up from the depths, hit the rapala around ten feet from the canoe, and dived down. Grandpa reeled it in, and as it reached the surface I saw the telltale top fin. “Grandpa, that’s a huge walleye!” I said. He didn’t believe me at first but soon was as happy as any fisherman can be. We had finally found them. After signaling Jon and Jesse to come over, we got him on the stringer and went back to work. Jon reeled in a smaller walleye. I had a hit and miss, and Grandpa lost his blue rapala on an even bigger bite. Then the fish suddenly shut down. We worked the area again and again but could not coax the walleye to return. Either it was the blue rapala that we had lost or all of our banging and fussing with the canoes had spooked them. We headed back for camp happy that we had found the walleyes. We filleted them up and sealed them in a plastic bag for breakfast. One of the walleyes had an interesting growth on his gill. We enjoyed some music, stories, and another game of five hundred before cashing in.
I woke up to the sound of a hard rain on my tent wall. Pulling on my rain coat, I stepped outside just as the rain began to die down and got our coffee going. Breakfast that morning was plain French toast bagels and fried walleye. We packed all of our wet things into our packs and pushed off into Maraboeuf under a dark and threatening sky with thunder rumbling in the distance. The storms passed by on each side of us as I kept a close eye on them. Not many things scare me but lightning really makes me nervous. We kept close to shore.
Despite the difficult weather the wind actually wasn’t that bad. Jon and Jesse struggled to keep up. Grandpa and I finally figured out it was the minnow bucket they were dragging behind the canoe and offered to take it for them. After about ten minutes of the hardest paddling we’d ever had, we hollered to Jon to slow down and untie it. Even though it was leaking we didn’t mind putting it in the canoe as behind the canoe it really slowed us down big time. Grandpa and I enjoyed good conversation all the way back to Horsetail Rapids, which was actually a rather relaxing paddle.
We conquered both portages in short order. They were significantly harder now that we were tired from about an hour paddle to get to them. I was really glad that we took the tow boat on the first day. Portaging both canoes was tougher this time but I managed to accomplish this feat after expending quite a bit of effort. Jon slipped in the mud on the Saganaga Falls portage while carrying the bear barrel with Grandpa. He looked up at Grandpa and said, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
Our original plan was to camp on James Bay, but the previous day we had decided to camp at Saganaga Falls instead, thinking we’d have better luck fishing moving water. My outfitter had circled a campsite on the south end of an island near the falls. We found it immediately and I headed ashore to check it out. In retrospect I’d rate it a four star site. The tent pads, space, and view were fantastic but the landings could have been better and the latrine was quite a hike from camp, but still it was basically brand new. Still, it was close to the falls and would provide a good spot to base camp from, so we broke out our tents and got organized again.
The view is what makes the site. It has a panoramic view facing east right into Canada that really sets off the beauty of Saganaga. The only thing that was a downside about the view (which may make or break it for some people) was a large lake cabin clearly visible from a distance on the Canadian side, flag and all. Still, it was a good site and more of a fishing trip than a wilderness trip, so it worked out. I do have to say that if I had to own a cabin that one would be perfect.
Lunch was summer sausage sandwiches again. I think this is the ideal lunch for the BWCA, as it is filling, keeps well, and is quick and easy to prepare with minimal cleanup. I also brought up a cheap pitcher I had purchased and mixed up some Tang with delicious results. This fantastic additive really makes for a refreshing and energizing drink. I’ll be sure to include it on future trips. As I worked a daring pair of red squirrels began to harass me. Clearly they were used to getting free handouts. They were fun to watch but had absolutely no fear. Over the course of our two days there they managed to get in our trash bag once. I was able to throw them for a loop by placing the trash bag well outside camp on the way to the latrine.
After lunch, we lounged around camp and I played my guitar sitting on the portion of the Canadian shield that formed the shoreline of our island. We also had our daily devotional time, thanking God for His protection and asking for safety and strength for our families back home. As we finished, a significantly large thunderstorm moved in on the Canadian (east) side of the lake. We settled in for a nap and a game of hearts but remained largely high and dry with only a few minutes of hard rain. I later learned that there had been a tornado watch while we were gone and suspect that it happened on this day, as the wind from this storm was really strong. I don’t carry a weather radio and will not, as if I had known there was a watch I would have not slept a wink.
As the rain died down, I emerged from the tent and began preparing our dinner. I selected one of our soup mixtures, a chicken and wild rice soup that has become one of my favorites on our canoe trips. I had to estimate the times of preparation as I had left my watch behind. It was surreal and wonderful to live for five days without a watch, schedules, and the confines of time. The directions on the package of soup suggested adding other meats, so I sliced in a few leftover hot dogs. The result was both hearty and delicious. I also cooked up a package of Knorr’s broccoli rice which served as a nice supplement.
We heard the loons calling as we fell asleep with the wind starting to pick up.
I woke up to a hard, stiff, and cold north wind blowing through camp. I had slept in my long underwear and was grateful for my flannel shirt and stocking cap, which I bring along in expectation of a day like this. It must have been in the low forties. The wind had blown all of the rain and storms away and it was actually quite sunny. It also had the wonderful side effect of keeping all of the mosquitoes far away.
Grandpa, Jon and I enjoyed cups of coffee and some hilarious stories before starting to prepare breakfast. My stove worked hard with the wind to heat up the frying pan and coffee pot for our breakfast. We figured out that we had to place them so the fire grate would break the wind, and our food quickly cooked then. The hot coffee tasted wonderful that morning, along with our French toast bagels (coated in butter and toasted) with syrup, bacon, and more leftover hot dogs in lieu of sausage.
It was Jon’s seventieth birthday that day. We gathered for our devotional time and read a passage of Scripture and then prayed again as always. Then Grandpa pulled out the hilarious card he had selected. We all laughed and then watched as Jon read the more serious letter that Grandpa had placed within. He then gave Grandpa a big hug. Grandpa told me later it was the first hug he had ever gotten from Jon. I was glad to see that we were blessing Jon in this way.
The wind died down a little so we could fish in the lee of our small island and in the more protected bay near Saganaga Falls. I wanted to be sure that we were fishing on the Canadian side. From looking at my map it appeared that the falls were on the Canadian side, so we did not venture up close to them and instead fished the small bay nearby. I caught an average small mouth and released it back at camp.
The wind calmed down and we all headed in for a refreshing swim in the lake, and then ate more summer sausage, Tang, and trail mix for lunch. As it was still rather chilly, I heated up more water and we enjoyed some instant apple cider. Mine was pumpkin flavored. The colder temperature kept the bugs at bay for the most part. I can see why people swear by September trips so much now.
Grandpa and I took the camp saw and felled a dead birch near our camp site. Sawing off a section we returned to camp, cut it into smaller sections, and split them. We had a nice pile of wood that we would use for a campfire that night. Grandpa then headed in for a nap. I relaxed around camp for a while with Jesse before he too headed in for a rest. Jon discovered a natural fishing pier near the landing on our camp site, where a deep drop off made for good fishing. He caught a small northern and bass after some time and filleted them up.
The afternoon warmed the air considerably. My Katadyn Basecamp filter had slowed dramatically, so I boiled lake water that Jon had gotten for me during our swim for our soup. I prepared a good dinner of vegetable beef soup and we fried up the fish and enjoyed them as well. I then pulled out the Little Debbie cakes I had been hauling in the barrel just for this day. We all enjoyed Jon’s birthday cake. By then the bugs were out again in full force, so we lit up our campfire and the smoky fumes from the burning birch (which was probably still damp) kept the bugs away while we sang a few tunes.
We then headed out for a final fishing expedition near the falls. Jon caught a good sized small mouth but otherwise we were skunked. We later heard from our outfitter that the weather was not in our favor and Saganaga Falls was usually a good fishing spot. Somehow I also get the impression that it is acceptable to fish right at the base of the falls. A beautiful sunset kissed our faces as we paddled back to camp.
The bugs were intolerable, so we retired to the big tent and played an intense game of hearts. We listened to two loons calling to each other. Their beautiful laughter is still ringing in my ears. As the full moon rose over the campsite two whippoorwills began calling, one of the most incredible and surreal things I have ever heard. They called to each other all night long. In the still evening, the peaceful hush of Saganaga Falls lulled us to sleep. Before falling asleep I listened to the whippoorwills and prayed for the first year of law school that was fast approaching.
I woke at daybreak. Again it was a cold morning in the high forties, so I was grateful for my stocking cap. I was able to take pictures of the sunrise before heading off to the latrine, where even the bugs left me alone. As the sun continued to rise I fired up our stove to boil the water for the last of our coffee. We had eaten almost all of our fresh food. I thought that we had overpacked but it was obvious that we had estimated well. We all ate heartily on the trip and were never hungry.
Breakfast that morning was peanut butter bagels, my traditional last morning breakfast that eliminates almost all cleanup. We broke down our tents, loaded up everything and began paddling down the glassy calm lake. We closely followed the shoreline in a northeasterly direction and avoided getting sucked into the small bay outside the falls. After rounding a point next to a small island and looking southwest, we identified a high, rocky cliff wall that our tow boat driver had pointed out and headed for it. Our paddling conditions were perfect; Saganaga was glassy calm and we took our time. I filled my Nalgene with water right out of the lake and took one of the most refreshing drinks I have ever had.
We paddled down the Saganaga Corridor and entered the channel. As we paddled by the cabin owned by Grandpa’s old outfitter Don Germain and his wife, we were surprised to see them standing in their yard. We hollered to them, tied up our canoes, and headed up for a visit. It was good to see them. We then paddled to 81 Landing, always a bittersweet paddle for me, and were picked up by Seagull Outfitters in short order. We loaded up our car and headed back to Minneapolis.
It was a wonderful trip. Grandpa and Jon spent good quality time together and we got to give Jon a very special birthday present. The fishing was good. I caught the biggest northern, Grandpa the biggest walleye, Jesse the biggest bass, and Jon caught one of each (three-fourths of a grand slam!!). The bird songs were unbelievable and as always our setting was amazing. I look forward to returning next year if circumstances allow me to. I’m sure they will. As always I am grateful to God for His provision and protection throughout the trip. While loading up his bag in Grand Marais, Jon pulled a piece of paper out of it that contained Psalm 91:1: "He who dwells in the shadow of the Most High will reset in the shelter of the Almighty."
And on top of all of that Jon’s cell phone worked when we returned to Grand Marais!
-It really pays to have your own packs. You can load them up at home and save lots of work at the outfitters. CCS totally rocks! This was the maiden voyage for my #4 Canoeist and my Pathfinder Thwart Bag. 5 stars for both. Don’t rule Duluth Pack out either, my #270 worked great for Grandpa and Jon’s personal gear and was comfortable to portage. It doesn’t have leather straps. I’m not sure what the material is.
-I was pleasantly surprised at my $30, 2 person, 7x7 Ozark Trail tent. My budget would not allow for a Timberline, my first choice, but I could not pass on this tent at this price. It is actually a fantastic little tent especially for the price and had plenty of room for two people. It was more crowded for us because I had a lot of my gear inside between us. I used a cheap blue tarp as a ground cloth inside the tent. It packed up really small too. As funny as it sounds I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to see how many years I get out of it. If it goes, hey, I’ll probably just buy another one. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on gear if you don’t want to.
-Hockey duffels actually work quite well for the portages. We used one to store our folding chairs (an essential for the seniors on our trip) and tents. If you don’t load it too heavy it actually is rather straightforward to portage. I have yet to test it on a sizable portage as our portages were 35 and 20 rods respectively on this trip.
-Bisquick pancakes and Tang will be main staples on all future trips. I continue to believe in summer sausage lunches, hot dogs for the first night (hardly any cleanup), and peanut butter bagels for the last morning.
-Another shout out for our stoves that screw on top of a can of Coleman propane gas. We never had a issue with our reliable, sturdy and efficient stoves.
-The Ace contractor bucket was wonderful for dish washing, well worth the extra hassle of bringing it along. On the fourth day of the trip I had a life changing idea for packing the supply pack. I will test it next year and let you know how it goes. It will involve among other things a better way to pack the bucket.
-Don’t be scared of the motors on Saganaga, there’s not as many as you expect. Saganaga is a great lake for camping and paddling, just know it may be some work in a strong headwind.
-My faithful Ozark Trail sturdy sandals, three trips old, let me down this trip. Although they were good for fishing and portaging, the bugs ate my feet up and gave me a lot of discomfort on this trip. I need to look into a new footwear option.