BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
May 18 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 17
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
Hanging out north of the South Arm
May 18, 2020
Number of Days:
Before I head out today, Aurora has a minor episode as my parenting time comes to an end and I drop her off with her Mother. Seems she wants to come with on my trip. I tell her our trip together will be here before you know it and we will certainly have fun together but, we will need to wait until then. She begrudgingly ambles over to her Mother’s vehicle, as I transfer her backpack and belongings. Deep down, I wish she could come too.
It’s a gorgeous evening and I enjoy the solitary back roads drive up to Grand Marais. Town is all ripped up so, I turn off at the old Gunflint Trail sign in the middle of town to avoid the worst of the road construction. I must admit, for the past several years I have largely ignored the venerable marker and just driven on by without paying much attention but; I need to get out and stretch for a minute or two, so I crawl out and get a quick photo for posterity sake.
Once I hook up with the Gunflint Trail it doesn’t take long before the wilderness begins to showcase, and parade, its wonderful diversity. I encounter a couple of whitetail deer before reaching the Pincushion overlook and as I approach the Iron Lake campground vicinity; a beaver, mother fox with kits and a cow moose all cross the road in reasonably quick succession. This trip is off to quite the start!
It isn’t quite dark as I make the left turn down the winding Tuscarora Lodge road. I quickly glance at the water level of the Cross river as I pass by and make a mental note of it. Doesn’t seem too high or low. As I am pulling in, there is a helpful large sign just off the driveway directing me to my bunkhouse. It is quiet and no one seems to be about so, I take a little exploratory trek down to the lake. It sure feels good to be here and get out and stretch the legs. I cannot claim to have had many bad experiences with any of the outfitters that service canoe country. But, for me personally, there is just something extra special about Tuscarora Outfitters. Most others are situated in town or on a reasonably busy and populated lake. Tuscarora is tucked away in its own little corner of the world more so than any other outfitter I’m aware of so, there is an immediate sensation of quiet other worldliness and being ‘away from it all’ when arriving here. It doesn’t hurt that the area covered by Voyageur map #6 (which is a personal favorite) is in their wheelhouse of main areas they service or, that Andy and Ada are truly phenomenal hosts who are always willing to go the extra mile to ensure your trip is the best that it can be.
Silently retreating to my bunkhouse; I make a mental note of what I need to do and remember tomorrow morning and, fumble around getting a few things better situated for departure, before succumbing to the ever-increasing demands of my heavy eyelids.
I am up before my alarm goes off this morning. My bunkhouse (#2) is conveniently situated close to the restrooms, so I stroll over and get ready for the day. Shortly thereafter, (and because of the current Co-vid restrictions) Ada comes to my bunkhouse to deliver my takeout/boxed breakfast. It’s still a bit cool this morning so, I cheat a little and sit in my van with the heater on while I eat breakfast; which proves to be very tasty and filling. I am determined to try some new things for this trip so, I had ordered a chamomile tea to drink with breakfast. I had never tried one prior and was a little concerned; but find that, while different, it is still a quite acceptable drink.
Up to the office to pick up my permit, and then down to the suburban to meet Mark (my driver) and load up the suburban with my packs and The Black Pearl as I plan on getting towed across Saganaga Lake (EP #55) to start my trip. This being only the second day of legally allowing overnight visitors in the BWCA, I don’t expect too much competition for campsites until the weekend.
Just before we arrive at the landing we are compelled to stop as a moose is in the middle of the road licking the ground (presumably salt or something of the like). She is in no hurry but, neither are we, so we enjoy watching her for several minutes. Once we pull into the landing, there is a vehicle there waiting for us. I had forgotten my fresh meat in the cooler back at Tuscarora and Andy had called ahead to a nearby outfitter to give us/me a heads up. DOAH!!! So, much for remembering everything. We turn tail and head back, delayed briefly by the same persistent moose. Before we get too far back down the Gunflint Trail, Mark notices Ada speeding by and we stop to turn around. She also does a quick U-turn and hand delivers my small cooler. Just another reason why these guys (Tuscarora Outfitters) are so awesome! Back to the landing, and this time we get to see a fox trot across in front of us as the moose is just off the road undoubtedly peeved at our seemingly never-ending intrusions.
Saganaga is a sleeping giant this morning so we smoothly cut across the lake to American Point. There is another couple there unloading as we pull up. With the whole Co-vid thing I’m not sure what proper protocol is but, they are very friendly and chatty, and we have a cordial, unmasked, conversation while we load up our respective canoes in reasonably close quarters.
From a paddling perspective, I don’t think I could’ve ordered up a better day weather wise. Nary a cloud in the sky and only the slightest of breezes easing across the bright blue liquid expanse. My first portage into Swamp Lake isn’t too much more than a lift over, but it does necessitate getting out of the canoe; which does my aging body good after a reasonably long stretch of uninterrupted paddling through the ever constricting western end of beautiful Saganaga Lake.
A short paddle later I am on to Monument Portage. This is certainly one of the more famous portages in canoe country. From Swamp, it starts out on a long boardwalk before transitioning into a decent path that does drop down to an expansive landing on Ottertrack Lake. Of note: along the way there are 3 large border obelisks (or “monuments”) just off the trail. Of course, there are countless smaller markers peppered all along the international boundary, but there is only a total of 9 of these large markers, of which 3 are located along this portage.
There is still extensive wind damage evident on the western hillside of Mud Bay with several trees bent or completely toppled over; and it is also quite shallow until I paddle through the narrows into the main body of Ottertrack lake. I pull into the peninsula campsite (#1996) to check it out. Even besides it being the only campsite for quite a distance in either direction along the Voyageurs highway, it is a very nice, accommodating, site.
As I push on through the pinch point of Ottertrack I need to favor the Canadian side where there is deeper water. Beautiful dramatic cliffs loom over various spots along the Canadian shore. Just before the lake broadens to the west, there is a neat sheer rock wall. Here is located a shrine to longtime resident Benny Ambrose, who lived in the bay just across the lake on the American side for many years. I’m sure there not, but there are some red stains on the cliffs that almost appear to be pictographs.
Benny passed away in 1982 but, remains of his cabin and residence are still visible. He isn’t as well-known as Dorothy Molter, and from what I know of him I think he would prefer it that way, but he too was a year round BWCA resident for several decades. You’ll know your pulling up to the right spot when you see the large rock crib below the surface just out from shore. Not sure if there's any significance to this but, interestingly, there is an old Budweiser can sunken here on top of the boulders. The trail running back to the cabin site is not super obvious, and it is a bit long, but is easily followed. It leads up to where his cabin was. There are several cemented footings, post holes as well as some artifacts (or garbage – depending on your perspective). It appears some may use this as an unofficial campsite as there is a makeshift boulder fire ring with charred remains inside. One thing that hasn’t changed since Benny was here is the breathtaking view west down Ottertrack Lake.
Next I paddle into the tiny back bay just south of the cabin site. There I find an old rusty hinge and, surprisingly, a well-worn trail back to the eastern side of the pinch point on Ottertrack. Not sure what purpose this serves or served? But obviously people must use this on a somewhat regular basis.
As I exit the bay and continue westward down the lake, I am captivated by the intense contrasting bright white expanse of an inland glacier against the lush green backdrop of the shoreline forest. It appears there is a small creek tumbling down into the lake here as the overhanging cedars keep this spot well shaded. I wonder if Benny was able to use this as his own personal ice machine into May and June back in the day?
Paddling on, I begin my search for the Gijikiki portage in earnest. It proves to be well concealed but, is located right where my Voyageur Map says it is. While the opening to the lake is quite small, the landing, just back in the woods, is spacious and has plenty of room for packs and canoe. The trail begins with a short quick ascent before turning west on something of a switchback. While not overly steep, the climb in this section still gets my blood pumping. Next the trail turns south, and the real fun begins. It is basically a vertical path from here to the summit. There is a neat rock cut at the top with a, presumably popular, large boulder that serves as a welcome resting spot. Just off the trail, on either side, sheer cliffs drop precipitously; confirming what my exhausted, racing heart is already well aware of. There is a short spur trail running west which provides a marginal overlook of Ottertrack Lake. Believe it or not, after continuing on, the next section is a succession of small mud holes. They are nothing too bad and the level ground is a welcome change; regardless of moisture content. Finally, the trail drops down to Gijikiki to a tight unaccommodating landing. These drops are nothing severe but, since they are all over large knobby rock faces, they have potential to be quite slippery. As I sit and catch my breath, I wonder to myself how often Benny Ambrose felt the desire to visit this ‘backyard’ lake?
Gijikiki is a beautiful sight to behold for more than just being the end of a tough trail. I paddle over to the campsite (#320) just east of the portage to assess its potential as my home for the next couple of days. It is a well concealed and well shaded site with a small but workable landing. The log seating and fire grate could certainly use some work but, there are a couple of nice tent pads. A respectable fall back site if I need it.
As I paddle away, the water is shallow for quite a distance out from shore. Being a relatively small lake, it’s only a short paddle to check on the island site (#2007). This island site has a neat 25’ rock platform out in front which I can see provides a decent landing spot and will ably serve double duty as a great, slightly elevated, perch from which to fish from. The fire grate is well positioned, has great log seating and even has an old moose skull (with tiny horns) decoratively adorned at the front. There are trails running to the back of the site where there is a decent spot to best view sunsets and there are a lot of downed wood back here too. However, the tent pads are certainly not the best. They are either cramped or boulder/root filled or both. Still, being solo, it’s an awesome site and I am happy to claim it.
The weather is supposed to continue being decent for the foreseeable future so, I forego setting up my CCS tarp. Besides, there’s some nice mature trees providing shade and shelter around the kitchen area. The resident beaver swims by to check me out as I finish getting camp set up. I end up cramming my tent in the spot right near shore. Not the most convenient entry but, it does offer the flattest tent pad.
With camp up, I take full advantage of the rock shelf and relax with some extremely convenient shore fishing. Later, after supper, I enjoy the silent company of a clear, starlit evening and its Creator before retiring. Things really went well today and I’m grateful to be able to be back in canoe country! ~Saganaga Lake, Swamp Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Gijikiki Lake
Ova-easy dehydrated eggs with fixin’s and a cinnamon raisin bagel for breakfast. As promised, it looks like it’s shaping up to be another beautiful day. I take some time to process a little firewood for later before heading out for todays adventures.
Gijikiki is somewhat of an oddity as far as canoe country lakes go. It is small but, deep. It is spectacularly garnished with several islands and rimmed with towering bluffs around most of the perimeter; making for a unique, yet astonishingly intimate, scene. Just a bit west of the Ottertrack portage landing is a mostly open escarpment rising high above the lake. The landing is cumbersome, and it does require some climbing & bushwhacking 101 skills, but it does afford a spectacular overview of Gijikiki.
Speaking of the portage back down to Ottertrack; I eventually undertake this beast of a portage yet again. It’s much easier heading north, as the main problem I encounter is keeping the canoe from hitting/dragging on the rocky trail as I descend the steepest sections.
Once out on Ottertrack, I am once again blessed with ideal paddling conditions. I plan on coming this way fully loaded again tomorrow, so this is somewhat of a reconnaissance mission as well as a day trip. Although, while I do plan on taking the western portage around the rapids into Knife tomorrow; to minimize repetitiveness, I take the eastern most portage through the peninsula today. It’s a user-friendly trail that climbs slightly most of the way before a drop down to Knife. Almost unbelievably, mid-day paddling conditions remain stellar as I head out SW down huge Knife lake. A short distance down the lake there is a scattering of small rock islands, barely protruding above the water level, that catch my eye. I pull up and get out to look around. I quickly realize that sea gulls are nesting here and comprehending the panicked meaning of the piercing loud screeching and faux dive bombing is easy to translate. I try to best minimize my intrusion and quickly move on.
I paddle past the first campsite I come across as it doesn’t look too desirable from the lake. However, I do pull into the next one on the point. This is a pretty nice camp but, it looks to have taken a lot of recent abuse. There is a nice elevated overlook just behind the main camping area which provides a revealing look down on the crystal-clear water where I can clearly see fish coming up from out of the depths.
I portage into Amoeber lake. This portage climbs most of the way before dropping to a somewhat inconvenient landing on Amoeber. First cast – fish on! Since I plan on moving camp here tomorrow this is a good omen. The island site is vacant so, I pull in a give it a quick review. Hopefully it’s still open tomorrow. I slowly work my way across Amoeber, Topaz and then Cherry; fishing as I go. The islands in the western lobe of Cherry have got to be some of the most impressive in all the BWCA. The eastern one especially seems to rise almost straight up out of the water. Seems like something right out of The Lord of the Rings.
Eventually I pull into the vacant narrows site on Cherry. I had stayed here about 10 years ago and thought it was a very nice site then. It appears to have fallen on some hard times as of late. It’s still a great location but, it just doesn’t exude the same ambiance it once did. It seems that a couple of the larger trees near the kitchen/fire grate area have come down leaving most of the kitchen area largely exposed. However, the exquisite tent pads back away from the main camp area are still there and, of course, the scenic cliffs would be hard to remove. I work up a sweat as I take a little hike up behind camp to a panoramic overlook of both lobes of the lake. I prefer the view of the western side.
Moving on to Lunar lake, I find the abandoned beaver pond at the middle of that portage is no longer abandoned! I get out and walk the Black Pearl through the maze of trees. (when heading from Cherry to Lunar, remember to stay left) Looking back, I realize I probably could’ve just paddled it. Ah well? I pick up the portage trail at the underground creek and begin the boulder scramble the rest of the way up to Lunar.
The trail to Lake of the Clouds isn’t necessarily overgrown but, it doesn’t appear to get a lot of use and is tricky to spot from the lake. It’s a short trail that climbs up the whole way. Lake of the Clouds has got to be one of the best protected lakes on a maintained portage route. There’s no getting around this fact, and a person will definitely earn their stripes getting here. It is a very scenic and intimate lake that is a personal favorite. I spend a little more time here than I had on the other lakes; quietly reflecting on past experiences here and looking forward to possible future ones as well.
The portage to Rivalry has an impressive cliff wall shadowing a portion of the eastern side of the trail. Rivalry isn’t much more than a beaver pond so you would think finding the proper portage shouldn’t be too difficult. I make the mistake of briefly following a faux portage. It has a good landing and well-worn trail. And clearly, I’m not even close to the first person to venture up this trail as there are old ax/hatchet marks a fair distance up the trail. I soon realize the error of my ways and quickly locate the proper landing.
To say this landing is a bit mushy is a huge understatement. I only take a half of a false step but, instantly end up knee deep in muck. There is some marsh marigold in bloom nearby to brighten up the scene. Shortly after getting past the ‘quicksand’ the trail drops very steeply and then levels off some before reaching the shores of Gijikiki.
Throw some brats on the grill and settle in for another picture-perfect evening of star gazing. It’s funny. I spend much of my time leading up to this trip processing the details of how, why, where, when I’d like it to go. Now that I’m here, the shoe is on the other foot. I spend much of the quiet evening thinking about the things I left behind. I suppose that’s one of the (perhaps unintended) spiritual fruits of getting away? It gives me some time, and most importantly, a different perspective to contemplate those things. Sort of like one of the main themes in one of my favorite movies; “Dead Poets Society”. For true growth and a better understanding, it’s good to occasionally get out of our comfort zones/normal routines and look at things from a different perspective. I think that is one of the reasons I enjoy getting away so much. I truly savor listening to the ‘quiet of nature’ and letting God guide my mind where he wills.
~Gijikiki Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Knife Lake, Amoeber Lake, Topaz Lake, Cherry Lake, Lunar Lake, Clouds, Lake of the, Rivalry Lake
I feel like I slept in but, find out that it really isn’t all that late when I get up. I tell myself there’s no rush anyways and I’m not going to allow myself to begin to get distressed over something that really doesn’t matter. It’s a glorious morning for a paddle. I hate to even mention it but, the air is a little heavy/humid. I tell myself that is a testament to how well things are going weather wise if that’s all I can complain about.
I methodically retrace my route from yesterday, switching up at the Knife lake portage. I paddle around the large peninsula and take the shorter portage around the rapids. This is a very scenic spot worthy of some extra exploration, and I notice right off that there are fish still trying to get up the rapids; even one (sucker) who’s ran his last rapid. Also, campsite #1997 is also easily hiked to from here. It’s a very nice pine duffed site that has a great view down Knife lake from its elevated vantage point. And, as a bonus, has a paddle someone has left behind.
As I pull into the Amoeber portage, there is a striking change from yesterday. Maintaining the apparent theme of the day, there is a half-eaten fish laying on shore just up from the lake. I scan the area but see no sign of ‘something’ waiting in the wings. As I head down the trail, I soon run across the culprit and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere fast. It’s a large snapping turtle, and he looks full. As I finish up the portage, crisscrossing the trail several times, he remains stationary and holds his spot.
Alas, the island site is now occupied. Fortunately, the other site on the south side of the lake is unoccupied. The smallish rock shelf landing looks like trouble but, quickly proves to be adequate. There’s an ideal spot to store the Black Pearl right near the lake. The trail up to camp is overgrown but there is a nice fire grate area with excellent log seating. However, there isn’t much of a view from here. The main camp area is very exposed and there is an awful lot of brush around the perimeter and into the woods near camp. As humid and sunny as it is, and with there being virtually no shade; I determine to set up my CCS tarp; more to block the sun than the rain.
As brushy as this site is there isn’t much for legal firewood near camp. However, I do come across a decent sized popple that a beaver must have recently felled; I bring it back to camp and chop it up. As humid as it is, I have no need of a fire for comfort but, I really would like one to grill my porterhouse steak later.
Looking up every so often from setting up camp, I notice no less than 3 separate parties paddling by heading towards Topaz. I guess being cooped up for the past few months in quarantine has got a lot of people itching to get out and do something? What better place to get away than the BWCA? Andy had warned me that virtually all the permits for the holiday weekend were claimed. He had never seen that before. I guess he wasn’t kidding.
I am able to get out on the lake before supper and enjoy the exquisite paddling conditions yet again. Like most of the lakes in this immediate area, Amoeber is a very scenic lake rimmed by high bluffs and cliffs. Yet, there is an inimitable shallow area where a couple of rocks protrude in the middle of the lake. These would probably normally not be seen even with just a little wave action out on the lake. I see another group pass through to Topaz before heading back to camp to cook supper. The porterhouse steak is exceptionally tasty. I say a silent prayer thanking Ada once again for going out of her way and bringing it to me. It hasn’t been an overly exertive day but, the humidity is beginning to wear on me a little. As night begins to fall the cooling air is a welcome relief. And, I am alerted to some commotion just down the lake. Apparently, the local beavers are either having some fun, or are mad because someone took their tree? I’m hoping it’s not the latter.
As the sun begins to set there is finally some nice color in the sky this evening. While I do thoroughly enjoy contemplating beautiful sunsets, I am never really satisfied with my own photography of such things and to be frank, have grown a slightly disinterested in trying to capture a viable image as the various internet sites seem to get perpetually inundated. I didn’t really attempt to take any while on Gijikiki as the skies were virtually cloudless. Here tonight, there are. I guess old habits are hard to break, so I do snap a few pictures.
~Gijikiki Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Knife Lake, Amoeber Lake
I am awoken by the briefest of rain showers this morning. By the time I crawl out of the tent nothing is wet or even shows signs that there was some precipitation. It seems about all that it did was increase the humidity in the air. It remains cloudy but, the weather radio says there is no threat of rain or storms today, so I plan on heading out.
There are a few canoes out on Amoeber fishing as I push off from camp. Soon, I have a line in the water myself. I paddle west and enter the southern bay where the 83-rod portage to Knife lake is located. Suddenly, my rod is jerked back. Fish on! I am treated to an epic battle with a chunky lake trout. I get him up a few different times and get a look at him but, as soon as I do, he tears off on another run making my reel sound like a chainsaw. Finally, I can see I am wearing him down some. I do not have a net so, getting him into the canoe is a comedy of errors. He is too thick shouldered to just grab behind the head and my rapala, while hooked good, is not hooked in the most convenient place to grab him, and there’s no way I’m going to muscle him. I don’t want to wear him down any more than I already have so I just reach into his mouth and get a good hold. I end up with a few teeth marks on my fingers, but I do get him in, unhook him and get him back in the water reasonably quickly. Thankfully, after a few seconds of doing a barrel float he turns tail and dives back to the bottom. He wasn’t all that long but, he was incredibly thick. I estimate he went over 8 pounds. What an exhilarating experience bringing him in, and I’m glad I didn’t stress him out too much.
The portage into Knife is just ahead so I paddle up and get out. This is a boulder filled landing. It appears someone had camped, or at least had a fire here, as there is a makeshift fire ring with charred remnants and a fair amount of sawed and split firewood just off the trail. I make a note of it and move on down the portage. This one climbs up and then drops down even steeper on the other side. It’s a pretty good workout and the landing on the other end is inconveniently sloped down to the water’s edge. Paddling south through the narrow waterway I encounter several different people out on the water fishing/exploring etc. The amount of people I have seen the past couple of days is the most I’ve ever encountered on a BWCA trip in mid/late May.
I exchange waves and hellos moving onto the 39-rod portage that leads to the South Arm of Knife Lake. Nothing severe, however, it does climb a bit before dropping back down to the doorstep of campsite #2138.
The South Arm is a stunning site to behold, as its pristine paddling conditions for the 3rd day in a row. As I exit the sheltered protection of the nearby islands even the vast expanse of open water leading east is literally a mirror. Cutting across the heart of open water I have a moment of what I can only describe as vertigo. It is a cloudy day and, of course, the clouds are reflecting beautifully off the surface of the lake. Being solo, paddling across this heavenly scene, I feel like I am truly floating in the clouds. For a moment I lose myself and have an experience of vertigo (or something of the like) and have the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I need to look down at the wake I’m creating to regain my bearings. What a breathtaking, awesome experience!
The portage to Sema is tucked away in a back bay which provides a smooth, almost beach like landing. A short distance after getting started there begins a long succession of little mud holes as the trail slightly climbs as it seems to be following what appears to be a tiny brook. The mud isn’t to deep but, it does cause me to slip on some of the boulders that are strewn along the way. I would think this could be a haven for mosquitos, as well, later in the year. About 2/3 of the way to Sema the trail dries out and becomes a pretty decent trail that terminates at the nice pebble beach on Sema.
Sema is a small but very scenic lake. The high rolling, richly forested, hills around the South Arm provides a magnificent backdrop. I have fun paddling around the lake picking up some very cooperative eater sized lake trout. I also check out the campsite, which is nothing to write home about. It appears there are a few other spots on the lake that would serve as a better location. Still, I enjoy the time I spend here immensely.
The portage out of the NW corner climbs up a short distance before dropping steeply down to the beaver pond where there is a mushy landing. The scenery here makes me feel like I just entered a whole different world. I guess in a way I have. Coming from the heavily forested shores of Sema to the mostly barren and open hillsides of the beaver pond is quite the contrast. After a hard left I am soon onto the next portage. There is a helpful log here to help with the landing. The trail climbs up fairly steeply but, fortunately, its only a short jaunt to paddle able water. There is an interesting animal skull here that catches my eye as I complete the portage. Next, there is a good-sized beaver dam that, since I’m not fully loaded with packs, I am able to pull over. Finally, I have a little trouble locating the next portage. I stop and listen, and then follow my ears to the running water. There I find the hidden portage into Spoon Lake. It’s a boulder filled but, most level, trail.
I have much the same sensation I had when leaving Sema into the beaver pond as I re-enter another beautifully forested narrow lake. Spoon Lake is a narrow and clear body of water. There is someone camped at the NE site but, the next few are unoccupied, and I decide to pull off at the last one before the lake broadens out on the western end.
It’s situated in a small bay with a great view of the island studded main body of the lake. The fire grate and kitchen area are exposed but, there are a few decent tent pads back behind camp. I grab a Clif bar snack and lazily lounge about before continuing my journey.
I encounter a group of 3 women just finishing the portage into Spoon from Bonnie as I pull up. The portages from here back to the South Arm are about as nice as one could hope for. Well worn and mostly level and I make quick work of them.
Upon returning to the South Arm, I once again begin encountering several other canoes out and about. I round the horn and find the landing to Thunder Point. I pull off and take the steep hike up to the top. It has been 8 years since I’ve been here last; Aurora was just a baby during that visit. I take some time to quietly reflect and reminisce on that trip and my life in general, thanking my Creator for how blessed an existence I’ve led.
Back down to the water’s edge, just before pushing off, there is a group of 4 young men just pulling up. We converse and find out we’re all camped on Amoeber. After trading stories of our experiences thus far; we part ways. It’s nothing crazy and it’s mostly at my back but, For the first time this trip, there is a noticeable wind pushing across the lake. It’s something of a Godsend as the cooling breeze takes the edge off the humid air.
I take the second eastern bay with the large island back to the 83-rod Amoeber portage. Once on the other side, with no more portages, I load up the Black Pearl with the cut and split firewood left here and bring it back to camp. I don’t even plan on using it tonight but figure someone should be able to take advantage of it and, having it at a camp will better insure that happens.
~Amoeber Lake, South Arm Knife Lake, Sema Lake, Spoon Lake, Bonnie Lake
It starts out as a cloudy morning. The humidity is still stubbornly hanging on as well. After an oatmeal & bagel breakfast I efficiently get camp packed away and I’m on the water. Crossing paths with a loaded canoe I exchange hello’s and begin to retrace my route from yesterday.
After finishing up the portage from Amoeber, I notice a dead mud turtle at the Knife lake landing. I briefly flirt with the idea of bringing it back for Aurora but, it is not fully decomposed; and the unmistakable smell of decaying flesh is overpowering. Besides, she already has one my brother Clay found for her on Quadga lake a few years ago. I set it on a nearby protruding boulder to be more prominently displayed. I veer off my previous route after I get to Knife lake and decide to take the 55-rod portage just east of the 39-rodder I took yesterday; passing a few living mud turtles along the way. Perhaps they’re relatives of the deceased?
The 55-rod portage has a nice landing in shallow water. The trail is mostly level but, does have a few twists and turns before ending at a grassy/sandy beach on the South Arm. While neither are anything to get concerned about, and since they both get a person in/out of the same area, it’s worth mentioning that I do prefer this path to the 39-rod trail just to the SW.
I am beginning to get worried. The South Arm is yet again a paddler’s paradise of glass smooth water. Sooner or later things are gonna have to equal out (weather wise) and I hope I don’t get caught out in the middle of it. Relatively speaking; the South Arm is like an amusement park today. I can see people in all directions and as I close in on Eddy Falls I can see no less than 7 canoes just out from where the river washes out into the South Arm. I pull into the vacant campsite just west of the falls to wait them out.
You don’t need to be an expert cartographer or seasoned canoe tripper to understand that the shortest distance from Amoeber to Ester Lake (my hopeful destination) would have been through Topaz, Cherry & Hanson. There are a few reasons why I chose this route. First, and perhaps most importantly, is the phenomenal weather. I certainly didn’t want to battle wind and waves on this behemoth and, as mentioned, South Arm is still sound asleep. Secondly, I want to check out Eddy Falls. After about 10-15 minutes I poke my head out and notice all the canoes are still there. I get back on the water and slowly advance on them. I soon realize that they are all just fishing; and quite successfully at that. So, I pull up to the portage landing and walk back to the falls for a few minutes of enjoying the scene.
The third primary reason for choosing this route is that I would then get the privilege of doing “The Enchanted Forest” portage. This is the portage between the South Arm and Hanson Lake. This is, without a doubt, one of the most scenic portages in the BWCA. It starts out on a pebble/sand beach. The trail initially climbs before turning and then dropping down in an obviously improved area. It then passes by an absolutely breathtaking area of huge cedars and a magical waterfall. The iconic V’d cedar, just below the falls, has got to be one of the oldest in the state; as it is on par with the venerable sentinels located on Basswood, below Johnson Falls and French lake at the end of the portage from Sea Horse. The portage then climbs steeply, levels out, passes by the edge of a tempting early put in (don’t do it!) climbs again before dropping steeply down to a bizarrely unique cedar root ball landing on the Hanson end. I said unique – not convenient.
With the cloud cover today, its hard to determine how late it is. I paddle past 3 vacant sites on Hanson before reaching the narrows into Ester. (Good to know if I must backtrack.) As I round the bend; the southern island site comes into view. It sure does look inviting but, unfortunately, it is occupied. I soon find out that all the ‘fab four’ sites here in the SE end of Ester are occupied. Retreating to Hanson, I claim the northern most site (#324) there.
I am sufficiently exhausted that I don’t want to split hairs choosing a campsite at this point. I know none of the vacant sites I passed earlier are anything too spectacular, so I resolve to take this one. It is mostly situated on a sloping rock face and the landing is a tight balancing act on a narrow rock shelf. Fortunately, there is a decent sized cedar tree there to lean/grab on to. By no means is this the worst campsite I’ve ever stayed at. Marginal sites on Banadad, Carl & Insula all quickly come to mind. However, I soon discover there is a scattered pile of empty pistachio shells at one of the tent pads, the log seating around the fire grate is disheveled with a broken glass bottle shattered just in front. Further exploration reveals a pile of what I can only presume is puke between the fire grate and the tent pads, and some other garbage back away from the kitchen area.
I have certainly seen (Gadwall, Tuscarora #517), and even stayed (Alice # 1170 just last year) at, sites that has substantially more trash than this one is. But I can’t recall being this disgusted about those. Don’t get me wrong, those sites were trashed, and I consider each of those instances a disgusting tragedy. So, after getting camp setup I spend the better part of the evening processing why this bothers me so much more. I think the heart of my problem is this: of all the other trashed sites, while disgusting, I could relate, at least on some level, to the people (whomever they may have been) who left those messes. I mean, I can understand why someone would want to have a bunch of items stashed away at a camp. Carrying a tarp, fry pan, stove, extra rope etc. etc. is hard work. And, I can understand that, even though its clearly against the rules, most people would want to avoid that if possible.
I don’t claim to follow every LNT requirement to the letter of the law 100% of the time but, one of the rules that I think resonates most with me is – NO GLASS. A little plastic or paper garbage is one thing, but having shattered glass around not only leaves an eyesore; it also makes a serious cut eminently possible. The thing about the mess at this site is; I can’t understand the reason why someone would do the things that were done. There is/was no potential future benefit like at the other sites? The site just seems to have been trashed only for the sake of trashing it. Truly tragic that someone would come all this way if that was their primary objective as this seems to have been. I’ve already said too much and I don’t want to dwell on the topic; tomorrow’s another day.
~Amoeber Lake, South Arm Knife Lake, Hanson Lake, Ester Lake
A sunny Sunday morning, I eat a quickly prepared scrambled egg breakfast with summer sausage and then hit the water. Clam lake is one short portage away and I’ve heard it’s a pretty little lake. The portage is easy to locate but, I can’t say the same for negotiating the landing. It’s hard to negotiate with something that’s not there. I really must plan my exit because the trail starts climbing, literally right from the water’s edge. It’s a short path that ascends steeply almost the whole way before a short drop back down to grassy landing on Clam lake.
Clam is as advertised. It’s a scenic shallow little lake that is a whole different world from the large deep lake trout waters of Hanson & Ester. Another exceptionally neat contrasting lake. While beaver activity is apparent, I wouldn’t call this a beaver pond. There are a several small islands of which a couple are substantial in size. The campsite (#323) is tucked back in the NW corner of the lake. It’s small and little used, it looks like the last visitor was the local beaver as a large jack pine has recently been felled. However, there is a small island out in front of this elevated site and there is room for a couple smaller tent. Feeling adventurous, I do some minor bushwhacking just behind camp up to a nice overlook of the lake.
Later, I circle the lake and even paddle up the little stream in the NE corner which navigable water predictably ends at a decent sized beaver dam. The lake also looks very moosey but, Bullwinkle fails to show himself during my visit.
Next, I plan on heading to Rabbit lake to try some fishing. As I paddle through the narrows and round the bend and Ester lake is revealed; I instantly realize that the southern island site is now vacant. The brakes are slammed, and I return to camp on Hanson and set a new personal record for getting camp torn down, packed away and loaded up.
My new home is a sprawling site that stretches well back from the water up the rise where there are several optimal, well shaded tents pads. The shoreline is well protected by mature cedars, while the fie grate area is populated with several towering red pines which, not only provide an exceptional canopy, but also offer great tarp and hammock hanging options. There are well developed trails spider webbing out from camp. One leads back to a rise just behind camp where there is a nice overlook to view sunsets; another leads down to the lakeshore and provides shore access to the shallow sandy narrows swimming spot just to the NE. Really the only thing to somewhat complain about is the landing but, it is shallow water so it’s not too big of a concern.
It’s not even noon yet and I’ve got camp setup, including my CCS tarp, and I’m paddling over to the Rabbit Lake portage. The landing here is not the most convenient, especially being solo, but I’m able to make it work. The trail climbs most of the way up to Rabbit before leveling off to a boulder strewn landing. I’m briefly perplexed as much of the landing is thickly coated with what I originally ascertain to be yellow Play-Dough. After further investigation I determine that it is a mass amount of pollen that has washed ashore. While I have seen this phenomenon before, I had never seen it in this volume. A few spots between the rocks it’s 4-5 inches thick.
Rabbit is another lake much like Sema. Small and scenic, and it also offers good numbers of cooperative lake trout. As I paddle around the lake, I take a break at each of the campsites. Neither is anything spectacular but, both are workable sites that promise a genuine opportunity at having the lake to oneself.
Back in camp, my free afternoon entertainment is watching seagulls come and clean up the lake trout carcasses, that the previous occupants left, out of the shallow waters in front of camp. A couple also unwittingly pulls in before they realize the site is taken. I direct them to the mainland site just across the narrows, which is now also unoccupied, and they soon lay claim to.
Having a fire is one of the ethereal joys I normally associate with camping, I relish the whole process of preparing & having one and I can’t remember the last time I knowingly passed on doing so. However, the evening air is still so exceedingly humid that I decide to forego this enduring ritual. The bugs and mosquitos soon educate me as to the egregious error of my thinking and resoundingly remind me of one of the most practical reasons of why I like to keep a traditional campfire burning.
~Hanson Lake, Clam Lake, Ester Lake, Rabbit Lake
I have no real set agenda for today. Eventually I determine that Ottertrack was too beautiful of a lake to just pass through so, I plan on revisiting it and poking around on that lake later today. There is no particular sense of urgency as I lazily eat my scrambled egg breakfast. The quiet of the morning is only broken by my neighbors busily going about their morning chores. However, every once in awhile the faint sound of splashing water breaks through. It takes me awhile to fully realize the significance of this subtle sound. My eyes are also no longer what they once were but, as I peer SE of my site, I see the water being stirred up near Totem Lake. At first, I presume it is just a beaver playing around, but after closer inspection I am able to make out a much larger animal. It’s a moose!
I grab my paddle and PFD and quickly the Black Pearl is gliding across the bay. I briefly contemplate letting the folks in the nearby site know but, seeing the moose continue to move, think it may not be there for long and don’t want to disturb them for what may end up being (for them) a false alarm. As I pull up, the moose briefly looks back at me just long enough for me to get one photo before it casually saunters into the woods and immediately disappears as if it were only an apparition. After returning to camp, I button things up and then climb back in the Black Pearl to begin heading north to Ottertrack Lake.
Ester is yet another gorgeous lake with extensive bluffs and cliffs accentuating the shoreline. All of the fab four sites in the SE corner are, yet again, currently occupied. This is certainly one of the premier basecamp lakes for this immediate vicinity; and the perpetual occupancy of these premier sites proves that out. As I approach the portage into Ottertrack, I make a note of all the dead and downed cedars and endeavor to gather up a few on my return to camp.
As with most portages in this region, this portage is a bit easier when traveling north as the uphill climb is neither as steep nor long as it would be when traveling south. Ottertrack has only a gentle breeze easing across as I head westward. Once again, I am leery that the weather is going to make a big turn when it elects to change; but, for now, things couldn’t be much better.
I run across a mixed group of 6 at the lone campsite located here in the eastern lobe; and, to my astonishment, they are willingly jumping into the lake from the elevated rock knob just behind camp. Having never come across someone so enthusiastically swimming in mid-May in the BWCA I ask if the water is cold, and they tell me, “No! it’s beautiful!” Stopping to chat, one of them tells me the surface temperature is 67 degrees. I guess with all the recent warm, humid weather things transitioned rather quickly on some lakes? After an enjoyable extended conversation, I paddle on back home to Ester picking up the firewood along the way.
Back in camp, even though the dried-out cedars are easily cut, I work up a pretty good sweat processing the firewood. Once again, I don’t really need to have a fire but, don’t want to make the same mistake as last night and get completely swarmed. Tonight, is my latest of the trip as I thoroughly enjoy the serene silence of another picture-perfect evening.
~Ester Lake, Ottertrack Lake
It’s a gray morning and the air is thick and heavy. At this point I would consider some rain a most welcome relief for a couple of reasons. First, while I feel blessed to have had such a long stretch of idyllic paddling conditions, it’s beyond obvious that the area could use some moisture. Secondly, it would help take the edge off and cool things down a bit. But, while it certainly looks and feels like rain is eminent, I get camp packed away and loaded up with unavoidable perspiration being the lone reason attributed to my soggy countenance.
While the gray skies provide a dreary looking canopy, the paddling conditions continue to be optimal. In my pre-trip research, I had read several dramatic accounts of the Ashdick – Swamp portage. A few even commented that they would never undertake this portage again. Perhaps I have something of a sadistic streak but, my interest had been piqued and I resolved to tackle this monster head on. First, I had to get across Ester and Ashdick which really wasn’t an issue as the portage from Ester into Ashdick is located a stone’s throw south of a nearby campsite located in the shallow little bay located there; and was easily spotted from out on the lake. The 55-rod portage was pretty straight-forward with the usual assortment of roots, rock and mud.
This end of Ashdick Lake is quite shallow and low lying. The campsite located in this lobe is a last resort type of site but, does have a neat little island out in front of it. It still hasn’t started raining as I pull into the northern site to take a quick break and grab a snack before tackling the beastly portage.
This is a much nicer site than its southern counterpart. It’s agreeably elevated with an excellent view south down the main body of the lake, and there are some decent tent pads back in the woods. However, whomever set up the fire grates on Ashdick really dropped the ball, as both are situated about as inconveniently as possible. This one is right on the edge of the steep rock slope and, for some reason that I can’t grasp, is not facing out to the lake. Still, this is the site you’ll want if spending a night on Ashdick.
As I am pulling into the nice landing to the now infamous portage; a good, hard steady rain finally begins to fall. With the recent long stretch of very humid weather, this welcome precipitation actually feels quite refreshing and I briefly consider not pulling out my rain gear. However, I do eventually don my jacket but, forego the pants.
Shortly after leaving the lakeshore the trail climbs steeply up to an area that has extensive wind damage and blow downs. The trail then morphs into a long succession of mud holes as it follows just under a high, but not always readily noticeable, ridge. The mud here is nothing too serious, maybe 3-4 inches in the worst spots but there is usually a boulder or log nearby to assist me from having to step in the deepest spots. Eventually the trail starts dropping incrementally as I near the Swamp Lake end with a few smaller pockets of mud still present. Finally, there is a decent landing on the Swamp end. All in all, I don’t consider this portage anything like what I read. Don’t get me wrong, it is a challenging portage; especially with the tough initial climb when traveling in the direction I did; but, for the most part, it’s a pretty level trail. The sense I got from the commentators is that they got muddy and that was why they had such negative things to say about this portage. And, to be fair, there’s no getting around the fact that you will almost certainly get muddy on this trail but, I didn’t see anywhere that had waist, knee deep or even boot sucking muck holes. Although, I will add that considering how dry it had been before the rains today, that perhaps the mud holes could be substantially worse.
As I push off into Swamp the rain has stopped. I am back on familiar waters and my next portage isn’t that far away. Having pulled my packs out of the Black Pearl, the front end is no longer weighted down and an unexpected gust of wind grabs her and pushes her out into the lake. It’s a comical scene as I haphazardly run along the thickly brushed shoreline and dive into the lake to grab my ride before it completely gets away on me. Not the way I wanted to discover it for myself but, I find out firsthand that the folks I met yesterday on Ottertrack were right; the water temperature really isn’t that cold.
Zephyr Lake is my hopeful destination but, that just isn’t in the cards today so, I press on eastward down the succession of bays and narrow waterways of Saganaga Lake. I’m hopeful to grab one of the sites located prior to the lake really broadening at Cache bay.
The site located at the head of the bay is vacant and doesn’t look too bad from out on the lake. However, camping so close to a heavily used portage is personally a bit off putting and I decide to try for something else. I soon discover the next site is occupied and am forced to continue eastward. The next site is open, so I pull in and check it out. It’s an “ok” site but it looks very buggy and I’m hoping for something better. The next site is just across the bay and, I’ll retreat to this one if the other’s not a better site.
Upon arrival, it doesn’t take me long to determine that this site is a winner. The landing is a little bumpy but, mostly decent. The site is elevated with excellent log seating, a couple of flat sheltered tent pads, good canoe storage and a nice mix of trees and openness with a good supply of welcome wood to boot. On the downside, there isn’t a good view of the lake from the fire grate but, all in all, this is a very nice site and I’m happy to call it home for the last couple days of my trip.
While I have taken the time to set up my CCS tarp at a couple of my previous camps, I didn’t get too concerned with how well they were anchored. The weather had been phenomenal throughout and it was more to provide shade than anything else. However, while it currently isn’t raining here, the clouds are beginning to look ever more ominous; so, I take the time to make sure I’ve got my tarp secured. And, boy I’m glad I did! About 7:00 p.m. things really get wild as strong gusts of wind and torrential rains mercilessly pound my site. As I look out from under the sanctuary of my CCS tarp, it’s raining so hard that I can’t even see the lake which is a mere 10 yards away.
Throughout the 30-40 minute onslaught I never even feel the need to put on my raingear. While rare, moments like these are the reason I choose to invest in proven names like Cooke Custom Sewing & Hilleberg. As I watch the water puddle up and nearby treetops sway to and fro, both my tent and tarp are rock solid during the maelstrom, giving me a real sense of confidence and reassurance that I, and my gear, will stay comfortable and dry.
As quickly as it started, the storm moves on and I stroll about camp to access any damage. There doesn’t appear to be anything noteworthy to report other than the bewildering preponderance of earthworms strewn about the surface of the ground. The birds and chipmunks are back wreaking havoc, so I presume the worst is over. After, I lay down for the night the rain returns but, it is just a slow soothing soaker that continues for the better portion of the twilight hours.
~Ester Lake, Ashdick Lake, Swamp Lake, Zephyr Lake, Saganaga Lake
Things are still wet as I crawl out of the tent but, the rain has stopped, and splotches of blue sky are becoming ever more present. I briefly flirt with the idea of taking a daytrip to Zephyr lake but, I feel satisfied with the quantity and quality of my exploratory excursions earlier in the trip and decide to kick back and relax today.
For the first time this trip, I make some serious progress in the book I brought “Jesus of Nazareth” by Joseph Ratzinger. Also, for the first time, the wind makes a mid-day appearance. It’s certainly nothing serious and serves not only as a welcome cooling breeze but, also keeps the bugs away. And, with the continual rustling of trees drowning out any voices that may carry across the lake, I only notice a few different groups pass by.
There really isn’t much noteworthy to say, as I lounge in camp for the duration and just soak it all in. As I stroll down to the lakeshore to do some evening fishing, I realize that I have some company. The local beaver is just down the shore 30-40 yards chewing on a fresh branch. Later, as the sun begins to set, he happens to swim past to add some action to the photo shoot. A truly beautiful sunset is a most fitting end to my final evening.
Early this morning it rains just enough to get everything wet. It’s supposed to get windy later today but, right now things are calm. I don’t have far to go today to make it to American Point to meet my shuttle so, I’m in no rush and savor the unhurried pace of my morning and packing chores.
Fittingly, the lake is offering awesome paddling conditions as I trace the American shoreline eastward towards my pick point. The first campsite up the lake offers a nice sandy beach and is occupied by some fishermen who just pushed off ahead of me passing by. The water is so clear that I can see several fish patrolling the shorelines as I paddle past. Arriving at my pickup point about an hour early, I decide to try fishing to kill some time. Unfortunately, I get snagged early on and lose my hook which kind of lets the air out of the balloon motivation wise; so, I paddle back and wait out my ride.
I’m a bit confused as I see 2 shuttle boats racing towards me. They are in such proximity that they must be together and, I can eventually tell that one of them is Andy. For some reason I have a brief dark thought about the significance of this but, quickly determine it must just be a training opportunity. (Which it was.)
As we load up, I regurgitate some of the details of my trip. A pleasant shuttle back across Saganaga and we’re at the landing. No sign of the moose on the road this time. A welcome shower at Tuscarora Outfitters, buy a sweatshirt for Aurora and some parting conversation with Andy who informs me that Gunflint Lodge is currently the only place up the Gunflint Trail that is offering food and drinks. It’s carryout only but, they do allow people to sit outside as long as they respect social distancing. As always, a hot burger and cold beers hit the spot, and, of course, Gunflint Lake is a beautiful backdrop.
Last year it was cold and rainy for the better portion of my trip so, I guess things evened out this year. The string of consecutive days of idyllic paddling conditions is something I don’t expect to have happen again in my lifetime. This was also the most people I have ever run across in a mid/late May trip but, that didn’t really come as a surprise; what with the corona virus restrictions being lifted just days prior to the start of my trip. And, Andy had given me fair warning when he seen the available permits get gobbled up. However, I did have Gijikiki, Topaz, Cherry, Lunar, Lake of the Clouds, Rivalry, Sema, Clam, Ashdick and Rabbit lakes all to myself during my time on each respective body of water.
I am exceptionally grateful of how well most aspects of this trip worked out. Excepting the site on Hanson, I had excellent campsites visiting some old as well as new areas; good fishing, wildlife encounters and, of course, the consecutive days of phenomenal weather was once in a lifetime awesome.