BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 01 2022
Number of Permits per Day: 15
Elevation: 1184 feet
Saganaga Lake - 55
Saganaga to Ester Basecamp-A Rookie’s Tale
May 22, 2022
Saganaga Lake Only
Number of Days:
After years of dreaming and planning, this was my first ever trip to the Boundary Waters. It was also to be the first trip ever for my paddling partner, Shawn. Our initial plan is to enter on Saganaga, portage south through Roy Lake, camp a night or two on Grandpa Lake, fishing for northern pike, and then perhaps venture further west through Seagull towards South Arm Knife Lake, if we felt like traveling more.
The few days off leading up to this trip are jam-packed with gear testing and food preparation, and getting out of the door at home on time is a challenge. There is just so much to do to prepare for my first trip!
I say goodbye to my wife and kids and pull out of the driveway at 11:20 pm, with a 14+ hour drive ahead of me to reach Tuscarora Lodge prior to their 5 pm closing time. My drive is filled with many phone calls to close friends who help me stay awake and wish me well.
I arrive in Grand Marais in the afternoon, and at last I am driving up the Gunflint Trail. As I make my last phone calls to my family and children driving up the Trail, a tumultuous sea of emotions churns within me. I am bursting at the seams with eagerness, but also great trepidation for the unknown that lies ahead, as well as love for my wife and kids that have supported me in taking this trip.
Andy at Tuscarora is a gold mine of knowledge for our chosen route, particularly regarding portage conditions with the high water levels. Due to uncertain portage conditions leading to Grandpa, we choose to paddle toward the Knife Lake area instead, with the goal of completing a loop exiting at Seagull. We settle into our bunkhouse at Tuscarora, sort, organize, and cull redundant gear. After supper at Trail Center, it’s lights out.
We rise early, pack up, and are shuttling toward Saganaga with Claire from Tuscarora at 7:15 AM. The winds are forecast to be light and variable today, a great day for paddling across mighty Sag. After unloading and tying painters on the canoe, we strike off, paddling away just before 8:30. I soon realize that I forgot the leeches for fishing back at Tuscarora.I decide this won’t be a problem at all, if we can catch fish on lures!
We have a brief snack break at an island site just before turning west to cross Sag enroute to American Point. After leaving the island, we spy our first bald eagle of the trip. Eventually, we realize that the islands and campsites aren’t in the right place on our map. Or, more accurately, WE aren’t in the right place on our map. We flag down a passing canoe, the first we had seen all morning, and ask “Which way to American Point?” The stern paddler points in exactly the opposite direction we expect, and we are dumbfounded. The day before, Shawn purchased a compass from Tuscarora…and we seriously wondered whether we actually needed it. From this point forward in the trip, I am very diligent about using that almighty little compass, especially on Sag!
At last certain of our bearings, we approach American Point. I am blown away by the expanse of open water that we are paddling across in our tiny canoe and reach for my phone to take a photo. But my phone is not on its lanyard. I haven’t heard it “PLOP” in the water, so we conclude it must be back on our island site from our snack break around 2 hours prior. Given how long we’ve been paddling and the lack of assurance that the phone is actually there, I favor continuing on, but Shawn encourages a return to get the phone. We turn around and re-navigate our way across Sag to the island in just over an hour. And the phone is found! After a late lunch on the island, we make record time back to American Point, our spirits buoyed by the surprise of finding the phone and all we have learned so far regarding navigation and paddling technique.
We pass the gaping maw of Cache Bay to the north and begin looking for an available campsite to call home for the night. The first 3-4 are occupied. It is now 4:30 pm, and we are both eager to find an open site. Fortunately, we find a nice secluded site in the far northwest arm of Saganaga at about 5 pm. This site sits in a quiet bay off the “main drag,” filled with mature red pines, and has a commanding sunset view overlooking a nearby island to the west.
We set our tent and hammock on top of a cliff top tent pad, and fish a bit from shore. Shawn has a northern follow his lure in to shore, but doesn’t catch anything.
After two giant ribeye steaks over the fire and a bagged wedge salad, we turn in for the night to the incredible north woods symphony of loons and an occasional barred owl call. So far, this has been everything I’ve hoped for…and more.~Saganaga Lake
I awaken early due to the northwoods symphony of loon and owl calls. While beautiful, I resolve to put in my ear plugs at night from now on! After morning prayer and a few unsuccessful casts from shore, I make some instant coffee and begin breaking camp. We are paddling by 9 AM.
We soon approach our first portage, the Monument Portage into Ottertrack. It is partially flooded but still easily navigable. I fall in the water loading the canoe on the other side, proof that I have a lot to learn about portaging and loading!
Next is the portage into Ester Lake, which we have trouble finding, until we see a married couple in a tandem canoe pull up to the landing. We are so thankful for good timing here, and portage into Ester behind them. This is a tougher portage, but no less beautiful. The day is sunny and fairly warm, especially after portaging.
Ester is a gorgeous lake, with sheer rock faces and gigantic trees. We find a spacious campsite on the north side of an island, and set up.
We paddle across to a nearby shore for firewood, and spend over an hour gathering dead jack pine and cedar. We are invigorated by the task of finding firewood, especially the aromatic cedar we have already grown to love.
As we begin paddling back to our campsite, we are mystified by how difficult it is to make forward progress, especially considering most of our gear is back at camp, and the winds are light. We shift some firewood to the rear of the canoe, but still are barely moving forward, in spite of our strongest paddling effort of the entire trip. Are we in a current?! Are we hung up on something? Finally, I look back and see that our stern painter has “lassoed” a giant soaked log that we have been towing across the lake. We share a long laugh at our foolishness, and I release the log to the depths of Ester.
As I am hanging the bear bag and the tarp, Shawn informs me he is not feeling well. We later determine he has heat exhaustion, given the warmth of the day, our high level of exertion, and how little we’ve eaten. Thankfully, rest and salty snacks help him to revive. At this point, we make the choice that we will definitely be spending the day or two here on Ester to rest and relax a bit. Tomorrow it is forecast to rain, which would make further travel unpleasant. We love this site, and there are ample day trip fishing opportunities nearby.
We enjoy another beautiful sunset as we fill our bellies with spaghetti, and call it a night.~Saganaga Lake, Swamp Lake, Ester Lake~Saganaga Lake, Swamp Lake, Ester Lake ~Saganaga Lake, Swamp Lake, Ester Lake, Ottertrack Lake
I awaken early to kick off our layover day with a giant, hearty breakfast. Shawn was able to rest well and feels much better after a solid meal.
After breakfast, we plan to daytrip to nearby Rabbit Lake for lake trout fishing. Just as we are leaving camp, our portage friends from yesterday pull up and tell us they had great luck just before sunset catching smallmouth and largemouth bass on topwater, on nearby Ashdick Lake. We get pretty excited about this and quickly audible our daytrip to go to Ashdick. I’ve caught plenty of topwater bass back home in Kansas, and figure this is just the type of fishing we need to get us “on the board” with our first Boundary Waters fish.
As we paddle out of camp, a light drizzle begins to fall and we don our rain gear for the first time. The portage to Ashdick is rugged but beautiful. I am surprised by how different Ashdick looks from Ester, and yet how gorgeous it is, especially with all of the cedars lining the shore. After a few casts and zero action, we elect to pause for lunch at a campsite in the middle of the lake while we wait for the late day topwater bite to start up again. We gather some firewood and enjoy a warm camp/cooking fire while we relax and wait.
As we wait, the wind and rain continues to steadily intensify, until we are both quite cold, bored, and ready to leave. We fish once more in various bays of Ashdick for bass, but have zero bites. It feels good to call it quits on this day as we portage back to Ester, with dreams of a warm supper on our minds.
We return to discover camp in a state of complete disarray. The tarp sags nearly to the ground, laden with rainwater, and Shawn’s tent is soaking wet, inside and out. It dons on us that we are in for more work than we planned on before we can start that warm supper. Shawn begins working on his tent while I set to work on the tarp, but my progress is slow as my hands are too cold to have much dexterity to tie the knots. In addition, we are both tired, cold, hungry, and irritated.
Once the tarp is up, it is nearly dark, and I finally get to work cooking up a hot pot of loaded potato soup beneath the tarp. After moving and re-staking his tent, Shawn somehow manages to stoke a warm campfire, which, considering the depth of my frazzled, chilled exhaustion, is a Godsend. By the time the soup is done, the rain stops, and we can finally enjoy our hot meal outside by the fire.
We are thankful for good food, warmth, and a chance to finally relax. I am thankful for Shawn’s help and resilience. Tomorrow is a new day. I get my best night of sleep of the whole trip. ~Ester Lake, Ashdick Lake
The morning dawns cloudy, but calm and not too rainy. Our plan today is to portage into Rabbit Lake and fish for lake trout. After yesterday’s debacle, we vow not to go to Ashdick!
The portage to Rabbit is all uphill and short, and we marvel at the beauty of this lake that we have completely to ourselves. Rabbit has many sheer cliffs that line the shore. We cast a few spoons over steep dropoffs, but have no luck. After a while, we get bored and elect to troll a lap around the lake to investigate the two campsites.
We are mid-conversation in a shallow bay on the south end of the lake when I hook a perfect eating-size laker. Both of us are astonished, given our poor luck and lack of fishing expertise, especially for lake trout. But the fish is landed and I just can’t stop laughing…this is just too good to be true. We filet the laker on shore, still in shock. After an exploratory trolling loop past the two campsites on the lake, we portage back to Ester, briefly stopping on a small island where we find a wealth of dead cedar to bring back to camp.
Back at camp, we sauté the trout with a side of bacon hashbrowns. It is without a doubt the best fish I have ever tasted, and the finest meal I have ever eaten in a campsite. I will never forget this first canoe country lake trout.
The sun finally re-appears after lunch, lifting our spirits even further. We spend a leisurely day about camp, cooking popcorn, cornbread, and pizza for supper, and just enjoying the view and each other’s company. Our plan is to exit the park tomorrow via Sag, so we try to soak up every moment possible while resting for our journey. I quietly spend a few moments casting from our campsite dropoff, reflecting on the how incredible this trip has been. I jokingly say to Shawn, “You know, I bet they’re slaying those bass on Ashdick today! We should portage over there!”
I soon see baitfish surfacing out on the lake, and I just can’t help myself. I silently paddle out, alone on the pure glassy waters of Ester trolling a Rapala behind the canoe, the sky afire with the blazing orange and purple of our final sunset of this trip, perfectly reflected on the water. Though I don’t get a single bite, it is truly a “goodbye paddle” I will never forget.
As I paddle out, I see our neighboring portage friends coming back to camp from the direction of Ashdick, and I can’t help but pull up and ask them how it was.Of course, they caught a nice number of fish today over there again! I pass along our along our fishing report from Rabbit, and bid them farewell.
We wake early to so we can break camp and paddle during the morning calm. I’m slow to get around due to the short night of sleep and my overall reluctance to leave this place that has made my soul sing for the past week. After a cup of coffee, we watch the mist rise from the lake, and we are paddling out of camp at 7:30 am.
The water is pure glass, easily the best paddling of the trip. The portages are uneventful, our navigation is true, our paddle strokes smooth and confident. In addition to all the learning we’ve done regarding this vast wilderness and the skills needed to survive here, we have learned a great deal about each other…and ourselves.
The paddle across Sag is sublime, with pure glassy water all the way to American Point. We exit the park at 2:30 PM. The trip is now over, but the memories of this first canoe trip will remain for a lifetime. I “regale” Claire with some of these memories as we ride back to Tuscarora, and it feels odd to ride in a car and talk to another person that isn’t my paddling partner. Shawn and I say our goodbyes, I peruse the gift shop, and begin my drive home.
A week prior, I had been on my phone talking to my family to the last possible minute when driving up the Gunflint Trail. Today, I am hesitant to turn my phone back on at all. I try to imprint the image of every sentinel white pine I see, and to breathe in every last whiff of balsam one last time, before calling my family as I enter Grand Marais.
I am still processing what this trip means to me. What lessons have I learned this week that remain deeply embedded, lying dormant inside until a moment of adversity, perhaps years later, will cause it to burst forth? What lessons will the park have in store for me in the next ten years? The next twenty? The Boundary Waters has touched the depths of my wild heart…and I will return.