BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
April 21 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 17
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
Happy 75th Birthday Grandpa - Saganaga/Ester August 2016
August 12, 2016
Number of Days:
We reached Seagull Outfitters by 3:30 PM, signed our permits, and paid our bill. This is our fourth year in a row with Seagull Outfitters. Their service is exemplary. We rented a canoe and bear barrel from them and used their tow and bunkhouse services. Grandpa and I enjoyed catching up with Deb Marks before heading over to the bunkhouse to get organized.
After that, we headed back down the trail to Gunflint Lodge for dinner. Before eating, we stopped by Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters and had the pleasure of meeting Sheryl (aka Mocha on this message board). With a delicious burger under our belt, we headed back to the outfitters and played a few card games before hitting the sack at a record early time of 7:30 PM.
After a quick breakfast, we were on our way to 81 Landing on the Saganaga Channel. Kevin soon pulled up with the tow boat and we headed off for American Point. This was my second time using a tow boat. Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t have used a tow boat, but with Grandpa at seventy-five years old now and looking at a six hour paddle from the landing to our campsite, it made sense to get a tow. I don’t regret that decision. I hope all of those who for various reasons may look unfavorably on tow boats would consider the ways that a tow boat can open areas of the wilderness to people who otherwise would experience great difficulty getting there.
We were paddling by about 7:20 AM and headed for the site I had in mind on the second bay of Saganaga. The wind was at our back, which made for a fairly easy paddle. Grandpa and I had packed pretty heavy since we weren’t planning to portage our gear, so our canoe rode pretty low in the water. I was glad that we were paddling with the waves and not against them for that reason. Grandpa is still a strong paddler. He always prefers to take the stern of the canoe, with me in the bow. One of the things I love about Grandpa is that he doesn’t let his age get in the way of living life to the fullest. As he always says, “I know my limitations, but I still can do everything that I want to do.” This trip once and for all proved that.
After an uneventful paddle, we arrived at the campsite I wanted, the south site on Saganaga’s second bay, at about 9:30 AM. This was a great site with a nice exposed point where the breeze can keep the bugs away, some great places to sit and relax, two nice tent pads, and a newer latrine in good condition. We saw two grouse near the latrine that morning, and there were plenty of birds around including jays, yellow warblers, nuthatches, chickadees and cedar waxwings. It is also out of the way as most travelers stay to the north of you heading to and from Monument Portage, so you can experience relative solitude even on Saganaga which can be busy at times. The site is also relatively close to Monument Portage, which sets up a lot of day trip opportunities, and also places you in a central location to fish all three of Saganaga’s western bays.
We unloaded the canoe and set up our folding chairs for a rest before setting up camp. Grandpa and I are good friends and there is never a lack of conversation, whether we are catching up on family news, sharing about the various challenges and struggles we have encountered or are encountering, or discussing our mutual faith in and love for God. We made sure to complete our daily prayer time before getting to work.
Our faithful 5 person Coleman tent went up with little effort. We don’t bring a tarp, so the larger tent allows us to have lots of space and gives us a place to retreat to if it is rainy. Grandpa then worked on organizing his things in the tent while I worked to clean up the site a little. The recent storms had downed a large cedar tree that had rotted on the inside, leaving it just behind the fire grate. I cut it into pieces, cleaned up the shore line, and formed two large brush piles at one end of the campsite far away from the grate. Once it dries, it will be incredible firewood for this site. I pulled the trunk of the fallen cedar over to the fire pit area and created a back rest for the logs that already were there. The campsite was soon neatly organized and ready for us to call it our home for the next two days. I also cut a length of dry red pine I found in the woods and brought it back to camp to saw and split as needed for firewood.
We enjoyed summer sausage sandwiches for lunch. No sooner did we finish cleaning up before a steady rain shower drove us into our tent, where we played cards and rested, still tired from our journey. I fell asleep lullabied by the calling of the loons, ecstatic that I was once again camped within their territory.
Once the rain had stopped and we were rested, we fished the bay around our campsite. Grandpa caught a small bass which we filleted. I lit up the campfire and we enjoyed hot dogs for dinner with our fish. After an evening cup of coffee and cleanup, we headed out into the bay to fish some more. We had a couple of hits but were unsuccessful. Back at camp, I headed in for a refreshing swim to clean off the sweat from a hard day’s work. After a quick gin rummy game we both turned in for the night.
We enjoyed a delicious breakfast of pancakes (a just-add-water, shake and pour product) and bacon, topped off by a cup of Folgers instant coffee. The rain started up again after cleanup was done, so we headed back to our tent for a few hours. I applied hydrogen peroxide, Bacitracin and a fresh bandage to Grandpa’s recovering head while he read Our Daily Bread. I read from my Bible and we prayed aloud for about a half hour, praising God, thanking Him for his many blessings, and praying for our family and friends. The ultimate reason I come to the wilderness is for the silence and freedom from distraction that allows me to focus on God’s Word and God’s works. Grandpa and I share the same love for God so we always place our time with the Lord as a priority on our trips. Today was no different.
After the rain stopped, we loaded up our canoe and headed on a day trip to Zephyr Lake as the sun began to appear. The five rod portage was fairly easy and a good first portage for my thus far unused portaging muscles. We worked the south end of the lake pretty thoroughly as we looked for the walleye Deb had told us about. I caught an average sized bass, which we kept, but otherwise we didn’t catch anything. I caught a smaller bass trolling through Saganaga’s third bay on the way back to our camp.
We spent the afternoon just relaxing around camp. I got my guitar out and we played and sang all for about an hour. I was careful to play quietly and I knew that because the wind was blowing directly into us we weren’t much of an annoyance. Another rain shower then drove us into the tent where I spent some time reading G.K. Chesterton while Grandpa rested. His energy level was down this trip because of his recovery from surgery and the fact that he had just finished a pretty intense golf tournament just two days before we left. For that reason we usually spent the afternoon relaxing around camp for the remainder of the trip. Simply the fact that we were in the wilderness, surrounded by silence and peace, was enough to recharge me. I didn’t have to be on the move all the time.
The rain stopped and the front moved out to leave a beautiful evening. I made a delicious dinner of beef and barley soup, fish, and coffee. After cleanup was done, I cut and split some firewood and we enjoyed a long campfire as the sun went down and the stars and nearly full moon appeared. As always our fellowship was meaningful. I am so grateful for Grandpa’s listening ears and wise perspective and the input he gives into my life. Silence settled over the lake as I put out our campfire. We fell asleep as a rain shower moved in overhead.
This day’s expedition was a day trip to Ester Lake. Ester is Grandpa’s favorite lake and for years he has told me about his many adventures climbing the mountain, camping on the south side of the lake, and swimming at the sand bar and sand beach. We camped on Ester on the second day of my first Boundary Waters trip back in 2013 but rain and clouds dampened our spirits that day. I had wanted to bring Grandpa back to make some good memories ever since that day, and four years later I was able to fulfill that dream. It was surreal.
The sun was shining overhead and the wind was in our face, but with an empty canoe we were able to make good time. On the portages, Grandpa carried my Duluth pack and the paddles, and I managed the canoe. As we tackled Monument Portage and the Ottertrack-Ester portage, we relived the memories of our first trip together with our family. I once again was able to carry a canoe over the Ottertrack-Ester portage, the portage that I believe made a man out of me a few years ago. We took plenty of rests and water breaks and Grandpa did great. I also enjoyed seeing the high rocky shorelines of Ottertrack once again. I need to come back to that lake.
Grandpa was ecstatic once we reached Ester. He was so happy to be on his favorite lake again. Memory after memory began rising to his mind. He first told me that we had to follow the north shoreline of the lake to find the sand beach. I asked him if he was thinking about the sandbar near the campsites, which I remembered, but he wasn’t. We paddled along the north shoreline of the lake and lo and behold a big beautiful sand beach sat tucked away in a cove. Grandpa’s still with it!
We paddled across the lake to the high bluff, which Grandpa always refers to as Ester Mountain, to try to find the trail that led to the top. When he brought school groups up in the 1970s, they always made a trip to the top of Ester Mountain. We were planning to eat our lunch up there while enjoying the view. We investigated several likely locations and bushwhacked a little but were unable to find the trail. Grandpa was a little disappointed, but neither of us wanted to take any chances. We were able to find a nice overlook over Ester Lake and get a taste of the mountaintop experience. My outfitter later told me that the trail had probably grown over. I may go back in a few years, bushwhack to the top myself, and experience it for both of us.
We returned to the sand beach, which we both affectionately referred to as Maui of the North, and enjoyed our trail lunch. After that, Grandpa and I went in for a refreshing swim. This swim may have been the highlight of my whole summer. The sand was soft and easy on the feet, and the water was cool, pure, and refreshing. It was a real kick for me to see Grandpa enjoying one of his favorite spots in the Boundary Waters once again at age seventy-five. I sat on the shoreline and watched as he waded out into the lake and sat down in the water with ecstasy and joy radiating from him, knowing that age seventy-five he was able to return once again to his favorite lake. It was an incredible moment that I’ll never forget. I hope I live through my old age with the same vigor and vitality that he has.
We had our prayer time sitting on the beach, loaded up the canoe, and headed back for our campsite on Saganaga which we reached at about 2 PM, once again taking many breaks on the way home. Thankfully the wind was at our back now. The portages were a little more difficult now that we were not fresh, but it wasn’t too bad. Grandpa was tired, but we were both pleased at our accomplishment.
That afternoon, Grandpa rested while I prepared firewood for the evening campfire, read, and fished from shore. After he got up, we enjoyed a stimulating conversation while I prepared dinner, which was Mountain House chicken teriyaki with rice. This meal is pretty slick. All you have to do is add two cups of boiling water to the pouch, let it stand for about ten minutes, and stir and serve. It was relaxing not to have a pot to clean out that evening.
Once again we enjoyed a wonderful campfire. We quietly played my guitar and sang a few songs but as silence settled over the lake and the wind died down, we put it away and listened to the loons calling all over the lake. Both Grandpa and I are always filled with awe and wonder at the beauty of the Boundary Waters. We really appreciate having a place that frees us from distractions and puts us far away from the fast pace and problems that so define our world, instead allowing us to completely focus on God, His Word, and His works. Grandpa turned in early, and I nursed the coals for a little while longer before joining him.
Base camping was a wonderful experience for Grandpa and I. We could explore the area we were in without having to take down, portage, and set up all of our gear. Our day trips broke up what otherwise would have been a bit monotonous experience.
We headed for American Point, where we were planning to camp that night on the south end of Englishman Island on our basecamp site from our 2014 trip. You couldn’t have asked for a better morning. The water was calm, sunlight danced on the waves, and the light breeze was at our back. We prayed aloud back and forth as we paddled and reached American Point in what seemed like no time at all before dropping south to Englishman Island.
Finding some people investigating the site, and still feeling pretty good ourselves, we decided to push onward under the optimal paddling conditions. We followed the southern ends of Englishman, Long, and Gold Islands before striking off to the far point that marked the far shore. Once again the wind was at our back. I had seen a beautiful site on the southern end of Clark Island on one of our previous trips and was hoping to grab it to make for an easy paddle in the morning. This being my fourth trip on Saganaga, I found that I knew the lake pretty well and we never got lost or even bewildered. The advantages to spending time on the same lake every year definitely include an intimate acquaintance with every island, bay and open vista. Saganaga remains my favorite lake.
The southern and northern sites on Clark Island were taken, so we pushed further north toward Campers Island. The third site (coming from the south) on Campers Island was open so we claimed it. This is an incredible site and would make a wonderful base camp for a big group, with many beautiful tent pads scattered through a lovely grove of red pines and a latrine in good condition. Someone had left the site clean and in incredible condition.
We were tired but pleased that we had paddled about nine and a half miles and placed ourselves within easy reach of the channel so we could take our time coming out. We ate summer sausage sandwiches once again and enjoyed a hot cider before setting up the tent right next to the fire grate area, once again for convenience. Grandpa napped while I read Sigurd Olson’s The Singing Wilderness and played my guitar. When he woke up, we just lounged around camp. We shore fished for a little while and Grandpa caught a small bass. I went in swimming also and hoped I didn’t catch giardia since the water looked a little green (the waves had been blowing into our campsite all day long).
We made another meal of chicken teriyaki with rice for dinner. Grandpa enjoyed a hot chocolate while I enjoyed a mocha and another cup of coffee, and we watched the sun go down as a front slowly began to move in. Grandpa and I were both surprised at the relative absence of bugs in the middle of August. They were present but they were rarely an annoyance, which was perfect since we spent lots of time sitting around camp on this trip. As the sun set, I lit up another campfire and we watched it burn down before hitting the hay. This evening was so still and quiet it was almost surreal. I listened to some squirrels and/or mice chase each other around behind our tent, and at one point even went out to check our hanging trash bag, which thankfully was fine.
The advantage of paddling in the early morning is that the wind usually is pretty reasonable. Even though we were paddling into the wind, we were still able to make good time until we reached the channel, where it was much calmer. I enjoyed a final long glance across the lake before we headed back down the channel. The skies were overcast so paddling conditions were actually pretty good.
Once we were in the channel, we took our time as we headed for 81 Landing. As we were paddling in, I could see that Grandpa was really tired. I was filled with a sense of gratitude, knowing that my time with Grandpa was limited. I have my whole life to accomplish things but I won’t have my grandpa forever, and I am so grateful that he could come along with me for four years in a row. I know these times with him are definitely times well spent.
We reached 81 Landing at about 9:30 AM, and Jennifer from Seagull Outfitters came to pick us up. We thoroughly enjoyed our shower and a light lunch at Seagull Outfitters before heading back for Minneapolis, with Alan Jackson and Anne Murray once again keeping us company on the radio. If you’re heading south to Minneapolis, I highly recommend Kaffe Stuga in Harris, about fifty miles outside the metro on 35, for a delicious dinner. Definitely go for the hand tossed burger with onion rings.
As our trip ended, I had a vague sense that this might be Grandpa’s last trip. He was really happy to be up north with me and enjoyed our trip, but I could tell he was tired. As we paddled the final stretches of the channel, I told him that everything has a beginning and an end, and if he didn’t feel up to a trip next year, he didn’t have to come with me. I think we both felt the weight of the moment, since I could feel it in the air as we were unloading the canoe at 81 Landing. We ‘ll see what next year holds. If this was indeed Grandpa’s last canoe trip with me, we ended on a high note. Watching Grandpa head into Ester Lake on the sand beach, one of his favorite spots in the whole world, at age seventy-five was one of the most rewarding and meaningful moments of my life, and I was glad to be a part of it.
I thank God for the wisdom, perspective, love, and friendship of my grandpa and am so grateful that God has preserved his life and health so that he can enjoy these adventures with me. I can never thank Grandpa enough for introducing me to the wilderness. I am also grateful that when he does cross over Jordan our separation will only be temporary. We are brothers in Christ and I will one day follow him into the great eternal wilderness, where the Lord Himself will guide us into green pastures, lead us beside quiet waters, and restore our souls.
-Grandpa has soundly converted me to tennis shoes as the traveling shoe of choice. They’re light, dry out easily, inexpensive, and do pretty well on the portages. I walked right through a lot of mud with them and did just fine. I kept a second pair of flat shoes at camp so I could change into them after traveling.
-For my supply pack, I was able to fit an entire Sterilite bin without the lid into my #4 CCS Canoeist pack. This allowed me to organize my things in the pack a lot better. Highly recommended.
-A saw is essential if you need to clean up your camp site. The cedar that had fallen behind the fire pit would have eventually become a serious fire hazard once it dried. With my Svensaw, I was able to cut it up and move it safely to the other end of camp out of reach of the fire pit. Even if you elect not to bring a hatchet, a Svensaw is good for cleaning up camp.
-I experienced problems with my original Katadyn Basecamp water filter last year after three years of use. For around $65 I purchased the upgrade and it worked very well with a one-year anti-clog guarantee. I’m going to hold them to that promise. We’ll see how next year goes.
-When cutting and splitting firewood, I often used Cliff Jacobson’s method: Rest the hatchet blade down on the log to be split and hammer it with a heavier piece of firewood. This is much safer and if the wood is dry should split nicely.
-If you are basecamping, Grandpa would highly recommend the $7 Intex twin air mattress. A Coleman battery pump cost about $30. This is totally worth the extra weight.