BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
July 28 2021
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1824 feet
Crocodile River - 66
May 2021 Father-Son Trip to Crocodile
May 20, 2021
Number of Days:
Last year my now 11-yr-old son, Josef, asked if we could do a father-son bwca trip together (in addition to our family's annual July trip). Took me about a millisecond to say “yes, of course!”
Our planning began immediately by defining his goals. He wanted to base camp. He wanted to fish. He wanted to eat ramen noodles. And so it would be (mostly).
Early in our planning we settled on a two-night trip to Crocodile lake to hit the eater-sized walleyes that reportedly abound in the lake. A new lake to us, we did our research and planned our put-in at the East Bearskin public access.
We're enthusiastic anglers who enjoy fishing, but let's be honest, we're not that good at it. And we're certainly not experienced *walleye* fishermen. So over the winter months I scoured this website for walleye tips and peppered outfitters and friends for advice. I learned words like "lindy" and "rig" and "patience."
For his part, Josef engaged in a months-long taste test of various flavors and brands of ramen noodles, creating a preference chart and eventually settling on the Thai Kitchen brand Spring Onion as his favorite.
Base camp, check.
Timing would be tricky. A summer or fall trip was not possible for various reasons, so we had to target spring. And we wanted to minimize Josef’s time away from school.
So, when permits became available in Jan, we secured our Croc reservation for entry on Saturday, May 20. We’d travel from our home in Minneapolis to HJO (bunkhouse) the day before, a Friday, with Josef attending a full day of distance learning school via laptop on the drive up. We’d enjoy two nights on Croc and paddle out Monday morning. If all went as planned, he’d miss a half day of school Monday morning and would log on as soon as my service kicked in near Grand Marais.
Gear: We’d take our trusty 15.5 foot Bell Morningstar royalex canoe, two larger GG packs, two smaller packs suitable for Josef to carry, our fishing gear, and food (including Josef’s Ramen, of course).
And so it began. We departed home at 9am, with my wife and daughter giving us a sweet sendoff. Josef was immediately on his laptop, fully engaged in school. We stopped in Hinckley to fill up, grab coffee, and check canoe straps, and then again in Two Harbors over his lunch period for his favorite Subway sandwich.
All the way up the shore, the big lake was virtually hidden by a wall of fog while we drove in perfectly sunny and clear conditions on Hwy 61. Pretty cool effect, though I missed seeing the vast expanse of the lake.
Another brief stop at Fika in Lutsen (a must-stop for our Swedish-heritage family) before hitting the Gunflint Ranger Station. Following protocol, we called when we arrived in the parking lot and the ranger met us outside. After assuring the ranger we had dutifully watched all of the videos, she administered an oral exam (which Josef aced) and we drove off with our permit. We stopped briefly at the Trading Post and Johnson’s Foods for a few last-minute items and enjoyed some time skipping rocks and hunting for beach glass at the harbor. The lake fog we encountered all the way up the shore hung thickly over the harbor and encroached on the town.
We made our way up the trail and arrived at HJO at 4:30pm. Mayflies were flying on Hungry Jack and we wondered what that might mean for fishing on Croc (turns out, we encountered no mayflies on Croc).
We met Nancy for a friendly chat and check-in. Looking around their main office, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of familiarity, and not just because we’ve stayed there before. Then it hit me, this is the same office as the one in the permit video. And Nancy was in the video, playing the mom character!
After checking in, we made an immediate beeline to Trail Center for our long-awaited fish and chips and ribs. Due to our schedule, we knew we wouldn’t get the classic post-trip meal, so we took the opportunity to treat ourselves prior to entry. Indulgent, yes. Delicious, absolutely. Regrets, none.
Saturday, May 20, 2021
In our bunkhouse we enjoyed a breakfast of cocoa and coffee, cereal and a muffin. We considered the weather forecast we’d been watching for days. It was already warm, muggy and buggy and the day was expected to be hot and sunny all afternoon until a cold front brought rain storms and colder temps to follow.
Before departing HJO, we had a long conversation with Dave about campsites and fishing on Croc. He gave us super helpful, detailed info. He knew another party was already occupying one of the campsites we were looking at (the second campsite from the west). No worries, we’d do a “drive by” and head elsewhere if necessary. I also ran our fishing plan by him (including our plan to do some slip bobber fishing with Gulp leeches). He suggested picking up live leeches from the Ugly Baby bait shop and gave us a leech locker to borrow and return when I’m up there for another trip later in June. Can't say enough about how helpful HJO has been for this trip and others.
We parked in overflow parking at the East Bearskin public access. Busy, busy on this Saturday morning. Another party of three paddlers—one tandem canoe, one kayak-canoe thingy—were putting in as we arrived and quickly made their way east out of sight.
Josef and I got our canoe loaded up, applied sunscreen and set off in ideal paddling conditions….in the wrong direction. Yep, after months of planning and staring at maps, I somehow mislocated the public access on my map. Somehow, I had in my mind that the public access was much further east and that our portage—from East Bearskin to Crocodile—was west of the public access. The portage is, in fact, two miles *east* of the public access. So, Josef and I headed west about a quarter mile before I realized my mistake and we turned the boat around. Just a little early-season paddle practice, right?
We found our portage with no trouble just beyond the falls, and noted the unused campsite near the falls we read about that can serve as an unofficial Plan B site if all Croc sites fill up. I loaded up a big pack and the canoe, which itself weighs in at 50+lbs, and headed up the steep ascent. Not an easy breezy first portage of the season, but, oh my, it felt so good to be hauling gear again.
I had distributed weight between the packs so Josef could confidently carry the two smaller packs, one each on our double portages. He more than held his own carrying a single pack and the bundled paddles/rods on his first carry. We enjoyed the walk back to Each Bearskin, hydrated and split a snack bar, and completed our double portage.
On Crocodile we checked out the top of the falls and then paddled over to the first campsite. It wasn't taken and we, too, passed it up. As we were told, the second campsite was indeed taken and we started our 3+mile paddle down Crocodile toward the other two campsites.
We considered the possibility of paddling the length of the lake only to find both eastside campsites occupied and having to make the paddle back west to the first campsite. I checked the hourly weather forecast (via our new Zoleo satellite communicator) and confirmed our understanding that storms were on their way later in the day. Based on the forecast, we had about 6-8 hours before the front would hit. We weren’t setting any speed records in the Morningstar, but we decided we had plenty of time to make a return paddle before the weather turned if we needed to, so long as we got to work paddling. We fueled up with a couple slices of precooked-frozen bacon (is there a better travel snack?) and set off to the east end of the lake.
Along the way we noticed the cloudcover becoming thicker and grey-tinged, with some blue sky still sneaking through. We also noticed the winds shift. We were now headed straight into an east wind while the clouds above continued west to east. Stormy weather’s a comin’. An hour or so later, we came upon the third campsite (occupied), and as we continued on, we said a little prayer to the campsite gods that campsite number four would be open for us. And to our relief, it was!
We immediately noticed scat in the open area beyond the landing. No “scatology skills” here, but we examined it. It didn’t look particularly recent and though I know next to nothing about these things, it seemed way too small to be bear/moose and way too big to be a camp critter. Wolf maybe? Pics below, so maybe someone can help with the ID.
(I’ve seen great pics of wolves on this end of the lake taken by other folks on this board and was hoping we might see or hear one ourselves. But we never encountered anything other than our neighbor beaver whose home is just across the narrow lake from our campsite.)
Anyway, we oriented ourselves to our new home and set up our tent and tarps knowing they’d come in handy soon enough. We put our head nets to good use as the black flies and mosquitoes buzzed about. (We saw no evidence of a mayfly hatch here as there was on Hungry Jack a few miles away).
Josef assembled his casting rod and tied on a new floating Rapala I bought for the trip to make some casts while I organized camp. First cast and he caught a small perch! What a fun start to our fishing trip!
A few casts later that same Rapala found a new permanent home high in a tree along the shore. We did everything we could to bring it down, but it was simply too high and too stuck. Bummer to lose a new (and apparently productive) lure. Even more, it was a huge bummer to “leave a trace.” But we just couldn’t figure a way to retrieve the lure. We can only hope it eventually makes its way down somehow and gives some fishing joy to another angler, or if it doesn’t come down, that it remains hidden up there and doesn’t detract from anyone else’s wilderness experience. Dang it.
We were eager to jump in the canoe, explore and fish. We assembled our other rods and, for the first time in my life, I tied on a bottom bouncer and lindy rig with a leech and trailer. I have a ton of respect for you experienced fisher-people who do this regularly. Took me forever to get this thing sorted out. But I got it set up, we started trolling, and lo and behold the contraption works! We found a 13” walleye on our first pass around the rock pile in the middle of the lake just east of camp. Maybe could have kept it but didn’t. Josef and I caught several more small perch. Josef was jazzed. No big fish, no keepers, but no matter. This was already a successful fishing trip in Josef’s eyes, and so it was in mine, too.
We were all smiles when we heard far-off thunder. We decided to troll back to camp and noticed a beaver emerge from his house near our camp and start toward us. The beaver quickly became aware of us, gave us a tail slap, and dove. We caught some video of our beaver friend swimming away and Josef, not missing a beat, named him Justin. (“Justin Beaver”…ha).
More thunder. Still far off. No observable lighting. Nevertheless, we skedaddled ashore and stowed the canoe and fishing gear. Within a couple minutes, sprinkles, and Josef headed into the tent to read. Wasn’t more than a minute later and the heavens opened up with a deluge of rain lasting a solid ten minutes. Under our camp tarp, I stood in awe of 1. the powerful rain battering and gushing off our tarps and 2. the suddenness of the change in conditions, grateful we heeded the early warning signs, stuck close to camp, and were prepared to take cover. The rain eventually subsided, letting up to a gentle rain, and I joined Josef in the tent to relax a bit.
Later, despite the wet conditions, we manage to get a fire going in the fire grate (we were excited to use the homemade egg-carton/lint/wax fire starters we made for the trip) and prepared Josef’s chosen first night meal, hot dogs. I offered to prep a side of his favorite instant ramen but he had no room after downing his two dogs. We thought about some late-night bobber fishing from shore with our new lighted bobbers, but we were pooped.
Sunday, May 21, 2021
The temp dropped precipitously overnight. We woke to a chilly 40 degrees and strong east winds blowing straight down the narrow lake in front of our campsite. Fog swept down the lake like an unrelenting fog machine was stuck on overdrive at the end of the lake. Josef noted how warm the water felt against the cold biting wind.
We got the Zoleo out and sent an automated “I’m okay” check-in message home to let our peeps at home know we were doing okay.
We heated water on the cookstove and enjoyed a breakfast of cocoa, coffee, instant apple cinnamon oatmeal, and more bacon (mmmmm….). As we finished our breakfast, the winds kept coming and the cold remained bitter. Josef asked to snuggle in the tent to warm up – who am I to say no? We snuggled up together in our sleeping bags and eventually started an epic day-long cribbage tourney, with a little canoe exploration and fishing thrown in when conditions allowed.
Winds topped out at about 10-12 mph, maybe a little stronger, throughout the day, which limited our canoe fishing. But we gave it a try when winds dipped a bit, paddling into the wind and trolling as the wind blew us back toward camp. We thought of letting the wind blow us all the way to the pinch point in the lake past the other eastside campsite, under the theory that walleyes might be following the bait fish downwind. But we were concerned about winds potentially picking up beyond our ability to comfortably paddle back to camp. So we made a couple more paddles upwind and trolled back to camp without catching anything. We spent way more time managing snags in strong winds than actually fishing, but I have to say we had whole lot of fun trying. We eventually switched gears, had lunch and went back to the tent to warm up and play more cribbage.
We knew we wanted a fire for supper and smores. And we were still a bit chilly. So we set off to prove true the old maxim that "a campfire warms you twice” and went to find and process some fire wood. We found a downed tree outside of camp and I went to work with the saw and hatchet while Josef harvested various sizes of small dry sticks for kindling, somehow finding some that were protected from yesterday’s rain. There was a definite sense of accomplishment after we organized our stacks of kindling and firewood next to the fire grate. And we were warm! There’s truth to be found in the ol' saws.
All that work got us hungry, too, and Josef was anxious to try the dehydrated hash browns we picked up at Johnson’s Foods. So we decided on an early supper and got the fire going and the spuds hydrating. This was my first time using our new BWJ cast-aluminum fry pan and it worked great with the hashbrowns. Was hoping we’d be frying a bunch of fish on this trip, but that would have to wait for another trip. Instead, we crumbled our remaining bacon into the frying hashbrowns and added seasoning. So fun to see Josef’s eyes go wide open with approval with his first bite. We supplemented the hashbrowns with slices of summer sausage and other yummies and then Josef was ready to dive into the smores, passing up another opportunity to eat the ramen he spent months planning to eat in the woods.
I got a head start organizing packs and gear for breaking camp the next morning and we fished from shore a bit more (without success) until the wind and cold again motivated Josef to suggest more cribbage in the tent. The Epic Cribbage Throwdown was back on.
We were getting pretty cold again as daylight waned, so we bundled up in pretty much all of our layers (think Joey Tribbiani) and snuggled into our sleeping bags. I was feeling particularly tired after getting little to no sleep our first night (I reeeeally missed my hammock). And, almost deliriously tired, I turned in early as Josef played more cribbage on my phone and reread some of the book he finished the previous day.
Monday, May 22, 2021
We awoke the next morning to a picture-perfect boundary waters morning: blue skies, calm breeze, and bird song from as far as the ear could hear. It was chilly but definitely warmer than yesterday. I was so grateful to have gotten a good night sleep with a full day of travel ahead.
We again sent a check-in message home with the Zoleo unit and learned later that our messages were received and appreciated. This turned out to be a successful test of a nice purchase for us . With five trips planned this year, it'll definitely get used to provide some peace of mind back home. Hope we never have to use the SOS, but it's there in case we or others we encounter need it.
We heated water for another breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and cocoa, and broke down camp. Fortunately, after a rainy start in camp on Saturday, everything was nice and dry Monday morning as we packed up, which always makes packing up a bit more pleasant. As I loaded the canoe, Josef eagerly took on site-policing duties, searching out any bits of trash we may have missed. By now, as the temp warmed, the black flies and mosquitoes reappeared, and we donned our head nets and picked up our pace.
Once we were satisfied that we were leaving a clean campsite (except for that darned Rapala in the tree), we shoved off for our 3-mile paddle down Crocodile, our portage back to East Bearskin, and our 2-mile paddle to the car. We were in good spirits, chatting a bit and scoping out fishing spots we missed hitting yesterday because of the windy conditions.
About a mile in, Josef exclaimed, “this was so much fun. We *have* to do this every year.” Not sure if sweeter words have ever landed upon these ears. It was heartwarming to know he had a great time and it was awesome to hang out with him one-on-one. So, for us, this trip has now officially become known as our *1st annual* father-son trip.
I have to hand it to Josef, at every turn where conditions could have dampened enthusiasm or derailed the trip for some, Josef didn’t bat an eye and instead offered alternatives. Can’t fish? Hey, let’s go play more cribbage. Too cold? Let’s hang out in the tent or collect firewood. Turns out we didn’t really *need* to catch and eat walleye (though we really wish we had!), nor did he *need* his long-awaited wilderness ramen. We just really needed to be together in the woods. And I do believe he's got a heart for the wilderness. What an awesome trip partner. We had so much fun together. I look forward to many more years of tripping with him.
After lunch in Grand Marais, my son jumped back online for school as we drove down the shore. As we approached Duluth, his math class split into virtual small groups and he told me we had to pull over so he could do jumping jacks for math class.
Jumping jacks for math class? Huh?!
Brighton Beach was right there, so I pulled in. Josef ran out of the car with his laptop, still in his small group math class, and hopped up on a large platform rock. His small group started timing each other to see how many jumping jacks they could do in various time intervals.
Turns out they were simply creating data sets from which to do various calculations. But it was hilarious to look out at the big lake with waves crashing everywhere and see my kid doing speed jumping jacks, completely engaged in remote, real-time schoolwork on his laptop. Another fun memory to add to a long list of others.