by neverfales

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/03/2008
Entry & Exit Point: Moose Lake (EP 25)
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
It's been 12 years since my last BWCA trip and I couldn't wait to get back there. Even in a place largely unchanged by man, many things are different.
Never before have I researched and planned any sort of vacation so meticulously. Not even when I went to Europe for three months after college. Maybe it was the long-ass winter and the subsequent cabin fever that went along with it, I’m not sure, but for whatever reason, I started planning this trip back in January, and couldn’t get it out of my mind until we pulled into Ely on Monday, June 2nd. I had read the BWCA messageboard posts religiously and asked a million questions, bought the recommended gear and read several books on BWCA camping and fishing. This was not my first trip, there. I had done a seven-day trip about 12 years ago with three friends from college and had an absolute blast, but I was determined to make this run even better. I felt like I had covered all of the bases, but knew full well that one of the main purposes of this trip was to do some trial and error and set things up for all the trips to come.

Monday, June 2nd

My best friend from high school lives in my hometown of St. Louis, so he made the drive up to Des Moines (where I live, now) the night before, we packed up our bags and we set out at 6 a.m. Monday morning for Ely. We rolled in to Cabelas in Owatonna right after it had opened for the day and picked up a few last items.  We had checked the National Weather Service forecast for Ely the night before and we very discouraged to learn that rain, wind and thunderstorms were forecasted for at least five of the seven days of our trip. So, I decided to update my rain gear with a new pair of Cabelas Pac-Lite Gore Tex pants. Good idea. $90, but got $20 taken off them at the register (still not sure why, but who’s arguing with a discount?) We also picked up some Cabelas “San Juan” paddling hats ($30 apiece, and another great decision). About 30 miles south of Ely, we saw a moose on the side of Highway 2. We pulled over and watched it trot into the woods. Great feeling to start the trip that way. Once in Ely, we bought a pound of leeches at TGO, poked around inside Piragis a bit and headed out to Williams and Hall for the night. They were partially outfitting us with a Kevlar canoe and food, and we had some dinner and spent the night in their bunkhouse. Same way I did it the last time I came up. Good choice. It’s a great way to start the trip.

Tuesday, June 3rd

We had breakfast and took one of the first boats out to our drop off point at the edge of Birch Lake. As we paddled and portaged our way to Knife, we passed a number of other groups on their way out. Many were wearing headnets, as the blackflies had really set in. I was glad we had brought some for ourselves. Scott had bought a new REI Mars 85 internal frame pack. We used it for clothes and a few other bags of small gear. I had the rest of the gear in my new Granite Gear #4 pack. I had originally bought a new REI internal frame, but was talked into exchanging it for a canoe pack that could sit lower on my shoulders to better facilitate carrying the canoe. We could feel the low pressure system pushing in. The wind was coming straight out of the east (never a good sign) and hitting us smack in the face the whole way up the Knife, and didn’t change a bit once we moved into the South Arm. I wanted to paddle a good ten miles up the lake the first day, so that we were in past the “crowds” and able to have an easy second day. This was probably a mistake. I pushed Scott hard and paddling that far, against the wind and current, all day across a lake the size of Knife is physically and mentally exhausting. What’s more, the two campsites I had circled on the map for the first night (tucked in to the backwaters of South Arm) were taken, and we had to portage over to another before finally being able to drop ourselves into an empty site.  Too late to fish, we set up camp, cooked our first night steaks, and wound down for the night.

Wednesday, June 4th

We had a little trouble finding suitable trees for the bear bag the night before, so I was relieved to wake up to find it untouched. 

{Digression: There is an immense amount of wind and fire damage on the upper reaches of Knife and South Arm Knife—throughout that entire area. Finding suitable trees for hanging food packs is almost impossible in many campsites. The last time I made this trip (12 years ago) the park service was still using “bear boards” between trees, and there were far more large trees to utilize when there weren’t bear boards. More often than not, we were using very small trees and getting insufficient hang heights. We are lucky we never lost our food to a bear. Starting next year, we’ll use a barrel.}

We did the bacon and eggs breakfast, which was nice, but we won’t do it again. Too much time, mess and weight (a plastic egg crate to carry for the remaining six days? Please.)

As we shoved off for Toe Lake, we could see the rain clouds moving in. We paddled the rest of the way up South Arm to where believed the Toe Lake portage to be. We hadn’t seen anyone else that day, and paddled past many empty campsites, but, we could see a canoe coming toward us as we headed south into the cove which held the portage. We couldn’t find the portage at first—we mistakenly went right, and when we turned back left, we saw the other canoe had noticed our mistake and found the portage ahead of us! I thought for a moment they might say something like “you guys go ahead—we could see you were here, first.” They, of course, didn’t, and, yes, they were headed to the single campsite on Toe. We were at a dead end and had no choice but to wait for them to portage and watch them set up camp in front of us as we paddled our way across Toe in the moderate rain which had just begun to fall. We had to portage back out to South Arm, and find another campsite. Unbelievable bad luck.

Oh well, that’s what the BW teaches you to do. Roll with it. Under all circumstances. You simply can’t sack out on the couch and call it a rain out. With the rain now hitting us pretty hard, we grabbed the first campsite out of the portage (immediately to the east). We scrambled to set up our new tarp and got the packs under it, out of the rain. It was pretty clear that this wouldn’t be any passing storm, so we set the tent up under the tarp and then moved it out to one of the tent pads, which wasn’t too wet, yet.

{Digression: On the advice of this message board, I bought an REI Taj 3 on clearance, but, of course, had to deal with the fact that Taj 3 footprints were completely sold out. So, following more advice from this message board, I asked my builder friend for a large piece of Tyvek sheeting. He cut me one, and then Scott and I set of the tent and cut the Tyvek to fit it. Both the Taj 3 and the Tyvek worked great. I would recommend Tyvek over any nylon footprint. It’s light, very durable, and has a Gore-Tex-like breathability. Plus, it was free.}

After several hours, the rain let up, and we were able to eat some dinner and set ourselves up to do some fishing. First, we had to hang the food pack, though. Absolutely NOTHING near the campsite! We ended up having to paddle across to the small peninsula to the east and find some trees, there. Wish we had some pullies, dammit. It takes forever without them. With that finished, I started trolling along the point with a perch Shad-Rap. Hooked a nice 18-inch walleye right away. Given how bad the day had been, I was really happy. I told Scott to take a picture of me with the fish, but he’s among the most physically inflexible people in the world, and could turn around in the bow seat and take it. We had to pull over to the rocky shore so he could get out and take it. 

We had already eaten dinner and I didn’t want to save him for breakfast, so I kissed Wally on the forehead and let him go. Small problem. The very front of the canoe was resting on a rock, so the balance of the canoe was extremely touchy. I leaned over to let the fish go, and fell straight in. With heavy boots, long pants and long sleeves, and a full fanny pack, I sank straight to the bottom. The 50-degree water took my breath away, but I didn’t panic. The only thing on my mind was “S--t! My fiance’s camera is in my fanny pack and now it’s ruined.”

Scott pulled me out, I stripped down to my t-shirt and boxers, wrung out my clothes….and went right back to fishing. I mean, the walleyes are biting, right? The hell with the wet clothes and the ruined camera, we found the walleyes! We got back in the boat, made another pass with the Shad-Rap and caught another nice fish. I was really excited but then it hit me—COLD! Wet, windy, nearly naked, dark…time to call it a night. I was extra careful letting the second fish go.

Thursday, June 5th

By morning, my fleece was dry, but the rest of my clothes were still soaked. My camouflage pants (50/50 cotton), long sleeve Patagonia t (70/30 cotton polyester) and cotton boxers didn’t dry were a damn in the humid weather. I had to bag ‘em up and wait to dry them at the next site. There’s nothing that sucks more than carting around a bunch of wet clothes on a backpacking trip. Next year, I won’t bring a thread of cotton.

We broke camp and headed south to Kekekabic.

Eddy Falls was really moving some serious water after the rain we’d had. I mean, gushing. Beautiful to see it like that. Every portage in from South Arm is up hill, though most aren’t long. Still a challenge, though.

{Digression: I must of read a hundred and fifty posts on this site about boots. Many of you argued in favor of Chotas and lighter-weight styles, but I bought and wore a pair of Cabelas Mountain Hiker II’s and Scott wore some Asolo’s of a similar heavy weight, and neither of us felt that we would have been comfortable in anything lighter duty. Yes, it would be nice to be able to wet-foot the portages in water deeper than six inches, but with 100 pounds on my shoulders (and 400 on my feet) and rocky, uphill portages most of the way, I was glad I had serious boots. I did wish the insides dried out faster, though, after my mishap.}

The small lakes and ponds between South Arm and Kekekabic are really full after the rains, and we see no one along the way. As we get to the far eastern finger of Kekekabic, though, the rain begins to spit and Scott suggests we take a closer campsite than the one we had planned on taking. This is an issue for me, though, since we’ve missed out on the campsites we’d originally wanted on the two previous nights. Kek is a giant lake and I’d really like to get across it, today, and grab one of the western sites closer to the portage we need to hit, but Scott is right—the rain is moving back in and we need to set up camp before we’re stuck like we were, yesterday.

The campsite we pick is beautiful. High on a rocky shelf (but then, aren’t most of them?) with a great spot for a firepit, good trees for the food pack and plenty of space. This would be a good spot for a large group. The rain dies as we set up camp and we’ve got a little time for cooking and fishing. I also try and dry my wet clothes on the rocks, but, again, the cotton isn’t cooperating.

The rain clouds roll back in around nine and we say “Screw it, time for bed”. We put everything under the tarp, which Scott has obsessively rigged over the door of the tent and we hit the rack.

It began raining around 9:00 p.m. and doesn’t stop until about 7 the next morning. Thunderstorms off and on, but mostly just steady rain—tons of it. Through it all, the Taj 3 and the Tyvek footprint hold strong and dry.

Friday, June 6th

We let the rain stop and then get up. This is the day we’ve got to make some tracks in order to make it all the way down to Sagus Lake for tonight and tomorrow night. We pack up and push into Kekekabic. The wind isn’t too bad on the eastern part of the lake, and I troll a small floating Rapala behind a keel-type bead chain sinker. Before long, I catch a nice laker of about 2 pounds. Nice fish, but we’ve got too far to go, so I set him free. I’m in the bow of the canoe, now, and that makes more sense, given his problems with flexibility (he’s also much wider than I and had more room in the back). 

Taking the turn southwest on Kek sends us straight into a heavy wind, and it takes us a long time to reach the portage south.

The portages, here, have some serious incline to them, and as we climb in elevation, the wind is more noticeable. By the time we reach Wisini Lake, there are bonafide whitecaps blowing west to east. It’s good news that the wind is now out of the west (and thus the pressure system is shifting) and there are nice patches of blue sky (the first we’ve seen in days), but the wind and waves are so strong, we decide to head to the first campsite to the east of the portage and try to wait it out.

We are basically blown to the campsite. There’s no way we can paddle against this wind. We sit at the campsite, the wind thoroughly dries my clothes (hey, it’s good for something) and we realize that, for the fourth night running, we’ll have to change our plans.

Wisini, regardless of the wind, is a very pretty lake. The water is heavily stained, but deep and cold. We haven’t seen anyone else, today, and we won’t. Everyone else is likely “winded in” too. We set up camp, eat our freeze-dried dinner, and gather wood for what becomes a great fire, that night. The wind carries one other advantage with it: not a single mosquito or blackfly that day or night.

{Digression: Next year, we’re doing our own food, and anything we have to cook will be freeze-dried. I’ve never minded the taste, and its light weight makes it more than worthwhile. Williams and Hall has packed a loaf of white bread and bagels for us, but they make no sense on this type of trip. They get smashed and take up room. They’re also stale and musty by the time we eat them. Tortillas are better.}

Hanging the food pack is, once again, a real chore, but we get it done and settle in front of a nice fire. The wind stays very strong through the night. The campsite is well shielded, though, and it actually works to our advantage, blowing the smoke and the bugs away from us. It also blows away patches of cloud cover, giving us our first glimpse of the night sky. A moonless night, the stars glow and sparkle in the unending black. It seems the weather might finally turn in our favor, come morning.

Saturday, June 7th

It’s a good morning. The sky is mostly sunny, the air is just warm enough, and we get an early start. The wind has lessened, but is still strong in our faces, and it’s a challenge maneuvering across Wisini to the portage south. The white caps are smaller than yesterday, but still there. We make it across and run into some Boy Scout Rangers training to become trip leaders for the summer. They’re fast through the portage and tromp through the water with carefree abandon. They say the thunderstorms two nights earlier soaked them inside their tents and sleeping bags, and it makes us recall similar nights when we were scouts, 25 years ago. We let them go ahead of us, but will see them throughout the day.

This is a long day of paddling and portaging, but the blue skies fill us with energy and ambition, and we soak in the sun. We make our way down to Fraser, and the waves on the big lake are daunting. On the way in, we paddled into the easterly wind up Knife. We’re headed west, now, but the wind has shifted, so it remains right in our face. Our shoulders and arms ache, but we barely notice. We cross Fraser and then Thomas in less than two hours. In the Thomas ponds and then at the Hatchet portages, we see a number of other groups. Most are asking about walleyes and are headed toward Fraser. 

{Digression: It’s been 12 years since I’ve been to the BWCA, but the last time I went, we took our trip at the exact same time of year. We saw maybe five other groups the whole time. This year, we’ve seen at least three times that many. By the time we reach Ensign, we’ll be seeing people everywhere. Clearly, the BWCA is more popular and more crowded than ever. It’s a good thing that so many people can share in this amazing wilderness, but it really changes the dynamic of the trip. We find ourselves hurrying toward campsites, finding many occupied by 1pm each day. This cuts down on the enjoyment of the trip. Next year, we’ll either do some basecamping, or we’ll head deep into the interior to escape the crowds.}

The paddle around Hatchet Lake is beautiful, and the blue sky paints a picture too perfect to capture with a camera. We take a few shots anyway. This is the first time I remember feeling hot. The water is so high from the recent rains and the late spring that we are actually able to skip two portages along this route to Ima Lake. No problem, there.

Putting into Ima, the wind is again heavy. It’s a tough paddle out into the lake and the north and east to our campsite. For the first time in the trip the site we’ve been heading for is open. It’s a beautiful site on a smooth point with just enough trees to protect the tent, tarp and fire from the westerly wind. We’re there early and it’s so warm and beautiful, we both decide it’s high time for a swim and wash down. For the first time, there’s an obvious bear tree to use, and someone has fashioned a long branch into a tool ideal for pushing the pack up extra high.  The previous campers also left us a nice pile of firewood.

The backwaters area to the northeast of the campsite is totally protected from the wind, though, unfortunately, not from the bugs. We paddle back in here and fish and they’re everywhere. Working the east bank, I hook a nice fish with a Gulp! minnow grub and fight him back to the side of the boat. He opens his mouth at the top the water and flings his way off the hook with a hard thrash. I can see he’s a nice-sized northern. Damn. Would’ve liked a picture. Oh well.

Darkness falls and the stars are absolutely brilliant. Thrown over us like a sequined blanket, we can’t help but stare up in awe. This is truly one of the most awesome sights in the BWCA, though no one ever comes away with a picture. Along with the stars, the loons are out in force. They call from all corners of the lake, and on Ima, there are a hundred of those. It’s also clear that loons in lakes outside Ima are joining in, too, as they do throughout the wilderness, up here. What an amazing symphony, conducted by the night sky and instinct ten thousand years old.

Another good fire, a bit of comedy as the beavers plunge their tails in the still waters all around the camp, and a perfect night to sleep.

Sunday, June 8th

We get a relatively early start, today, and are headed toward Ensign. We see people all along the way, beginning at the first portage out on the west. We are consistently waiting for at least one other group at each portage along the way. This is really strange, as the last time I was here, I don’t think we saw anyone. It’s clear those days are gone—at least in a June trip. At the falls near Jordan, we get a good laugh out of watch one group which has clearly stepped straight out of a major Piragis shopping spree. The fathers and sons have the obligatory Tilly hats, beige nylon Buzz Off shirts, khaki paddling pants (creases from the Piragis shelves still loud and clear), Chota boots, paddling gloves and sunglasses (a 12-year old kid in $75 sunglasses? Gimme a break!) They must have stepped into the shop wearing nothing but a credit card and ordered the salesman to “Outfit me, now!” The funniest part is, one of these father/son duos seems to be traveling with what we deem to be the worst outfitted duo we’ve seen—they’ve got tennis shoes, heavy cotton cutoffs and some big garbage bags in their boat. You’d think there’d be a little sharing of information, if not cash, between the teams.

There are a few poor bastards along the route lugging the 75-lb aluminum canoes, and I can almost feel their pain through my own back. There are two relatively long portages along this route, and they’ve got me a little sore, despite our Kevlar boat. 

One of the last groups we encounter is a foursome of 30-something guys our age who’ve been fishing this morning on Ashigan. They’ve got three stringers full of fish. The fish are walleyes, smallies and smallish northerns. My suspicion is that they’ve kept every single fish they’ve caught, and it bothers me. Yes, there’s a chance they’ll fillet, eat and enjoy every one of them, but I’ve been around fishing long enough to spot a group out for bragging rights and impressive photos of full stringers. There are plenty of fish in Ashigan and nobody’s exceeding their bag limits, but this is way too many fish to eat in one day, and we all know they spoil pretty easily when the weather is warm like it is today. My guess is that most of those fish ended up feeding gulls, and I think that’s a waste.

We reach Ensign in plenty of time to find a great site.

Then again, maybe not. As we paddle west from the Ashigan portage, every campsite is full and there are more canoes coming toward us. A couple we crossed back a few portages said that they were sure there were a few sites on Ensign left. We get more than halfway across the lake and start feeling a little desperate. After all, the western half of the lake should be more crowded, right? With the groups coming in and those ready to leave, like us? We paddle hard for what we can see is an open site on the south shore, but once we reach it, are disappointed to find it swamped with puddles and mud and infested with mosquitoes and flies. We shove off and cross the lake to the north side. We are relieved to find an empty site. It isn’t a great one, but we aren’t going to risk losing it by prolonging our search for an ideal site. Again, it’s only about 1pm, so we’ve got a long day to kill. We don’t really feel like fishing, so we’re content to swim, nap in the sun and watch the night come in.

Monday, June 9th

Pick up day. We are up in plenty of time to eat, pack and shove off. It’s amazing how heavy the food pack still is. We’ve packed way too much of it. We’re sick of the candy, sick of dehydrated blueberry granola and sick of the million little plastic baggies floating around in the pack. Next year, we’ll find a better way. That’s what “Next Years” are for in the Boundary Waters—to get everything just right. Right? 

{Digression: Next year, no cotton, no second fishing rod, more Nalgene bottles, a big water bladder, a better sleeping pad, less food, one big bottle of cooking fuel instead of two, a bear barrel instead of a food pack, no axe, a saw instead, more cigarettes, a smaller bottle of Jim Beam, bug lotion instead of spray, a waterproof camera case and Chacos instead of Chuck Taylors.}

The second to last portage is skippable because of the high water, and the last one, onto Splash has at least five other groups. Five! I can’t believe how many people are here, right now! Our boat from Williams and Hall is there waiting for us, and we’ve got to hurry, because there are two more groups waiting to paddle in!

Back at the lodge, Dave and Blaine are waiting for us with beers and I ask them to contact me when they come through Des Moines next winter for the sports show so I can do a story on them (I’m a TV news reporter). We shower up, change into the clean clothes we have waiting for us, and drive off for a giant pizza in Ely. By the way, Pizza Hut sucks. I don’t think they even really make the pizzas there, anymore. They’re probably frozen crusts topped with previously-frozen ingredients. The chain concept has polluted every one of the Yum! brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, A&W, Long John Silver’s, etc.) Next year, we’ll go to one of the local joints. Our mistake.

We’re tired and ready to re-enter civilization. Single portage, non-basecamping trips to the BWCA are tough, even for men with strong backs and good equipment. A few of our friends thought we were crazy for even wanting to do something like this. Most Americans would probably agree with them. Then again, that’s what makes the BWCA and Quetico so wonderful. Trips there are difficult. Not just anyone can do them, and not everyone who does them wants to do them again. The wild places that remain today are wild for a reason. They’re hard to access, hard to endure, and can be very hard on the people who make the sacrifices and commitments to enter them. No, this isn’t a Chris McCandless-type venture “into the wild” with nothing but a bag of rice and a small pack, but it’s a challenge steep enough to force a man to compromise, to strain his muscles, push his will and to step into the face of his breaking point and shove it back a few steps. Our primal fascination with woods and water and wild remains intact after thousands of years, and for good reason: it’s incredibly rewarding.