Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

A Promise Kept
by jcavenagh

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/06/2010
Entry & Exit Point: Moose Lake (EP 25)
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Up the "S" Chain, Down Agnes, Have a Whirlpool, and home via the Yellow Brick Road
DAY 1 – Friday - Up bright and early at VNO to get out for that 6 a.m. tow to the border. Got 10 minutes out of town and had to go back for the cooler. Our first night’s dinner is in there! -- OK, back on track and we are at Prairie Portage by 7:15. Everything is ready to go, except the ranger. The weather is crisp and cool, a perfect start to the trip! We checked the NOAA weather site and we have good clear weather until at least Sunday night. We push off at 8:30 and begin our paddle into the “S” Chain. Our goal is to get to Shade Lake today. With just me, a broken down old Dad, and Sean, my 12 year old son, we don’t expect to be making any 20 mile days, but we’ll do OK. We paddle up to Burke Lake. Holy Cow! Why didn’t we take this route 2 years ago?? We took the North Portage in and out of Sunday Lake in 2008. This Burke Lake portage is like a stroll in the park. I see now why some folks call this the Yellow Brick Road. I found a torn seam on our food pack as we were loading the canoe at Prairie Portage. The young intern there was very helpful and gave me a needle and a spool of thread. I took about 45 minutes and double sewed the seam up down several inches. My eyes aren’t what they used to be so it took me longer than I anticipated to make sure it is good and strong. While I was finishing up the seam we met a group of guys from Alabama who were going on a similar route as Sean and I, but they are going much further north. Found a water bottle of one of the Alabama guys and called ahead. He came back and retrieved it. Burke is very pretty in the mid-morning, and calm. That makes for some nice paddling and a good introduction to canoeing for Sean. We trolled a little in Burke, but didn’t catch anything. That same water bottle was waiting for us at the beginning of the portage out of Burke. I guess that little guy just wanted to be free. We picked it up and brought it along with us. After we went through the little no name lake we got into North Bay. The wind was blowing from the southwest and Sean got his first taste of some “big water.” It wasn’t too bad and we stuck close to shore, so there were no scary moments (more on those later.) We went up the wrong inlet looking for South Lake. Almost got stuck in the swampy dead end where a little creek comes in. Oh well, so we are about an hour later than we thought. No sweat. After we got out of there, we went around the next point and found the narrow inlet with all the lily pads. DL was right on. The channel was easy to spot, and we paddled all the way up to the South Lake portage. The lily pads make for a slow go, but it sure is easier than slogging through mud! (I was worried about the water level, but DL assured me it was wet all the way in.) Time for a little lunch. Granola with dried fruit and cool, clear lake water. Sean was a bit skeptical about the granola, but we hadn’t really eaten breakfast, so he was pretty hungry and discovered that the granola was actually quite tasty. Into South Lake and no more people. The quiet of the wilderness lets us hear the ringing in our ears caused by all that city noise we live with 24/7. It’s pretty hot now and there are no clouds to be seen. South Lake is calm and there is just about no wind. We take our time and look around a bit. Next, Sean does his first canoe portage into West Lake. He holds up like a real trouper, even though the canoe is more than half his weight. We are going slower now as the heat of the day is working hard on these city boys! As we enter the little lake between West and Shade, we realize that the sun is really quite far to the west now. We have been double portaging, so even the short portages have been taking some time. It is great fun to do the pull over into Shade! The water is cool and rushing a bit, and it is very refreshing. I thought we would get into Shade earlier, but we still have plenty of daylight left. Boy, it sure is hot when we get back into the canoe. We are both pretty well fatigued and are disappointed to find several campsites full. We paddle around a bit and find a site on the east side of the lake about half way up. The sun is really sliding down in the sky. I didn’t realize how late it was. (As always, I left all time keeping devices out of the park.) We set up camp, and started a little fire to grill our steaks on. We also have corn on the cob with margarine, salt and pepper. A good solid meal raises our spirits. Sean’s muscles get a little stiff as we relax. Even though he can swim 2 or 3 miles at practice, he is using different muscles now! It is quite warm as we get to bed. No rain fly tonight and I hope Sean will see all the stars. No such luck. Sean is asleep almost before his head hits the sleeping bag. I feel great!

DAY 2 – We slept late on Saturday. We have nowhere to go, really. We are going to stay in Shade tonight, so we can play all day! We have eggs and toast for breakfast. Sean decides to have some herbal tea. I didn’t know he liked tea, but I brought plenty and he enjoys the different flavors. The sun was well up in the sky by the time we finished breakfast, and boy, was it hot! We decided to go for a swim. Sean forgot his swimsuit, so he went skinny-dipping for the first time in his life. He didn’t like too much. After swimming, we just laid around for a while on the rocks. We then paddled to some other campsites and looked around a bit. It sure was hot. We went back to our camp and had a little lunch and decided to try fishing. I got the canoe ready and got in. I didn’t get it all the way off the rock, and before you can say Jack Robinson, I had flipped and swamped the canoe! Sean wasn’t sure what to say, but it was pretty funny, so I laughed it off. Well, I was soaked, so I hung those clothes up to dry, which didn’t take very long in the hot sun, except for the cotton tee, which took longer than I expected. By the time I had regrouped, Sean was already casting from the shore, so we walked up and down the shore casting by overhanging trees and other features. I guess it was siesta time for the fish because we got nary a nibble. We then paddled over and fished up and down the east bank of the lake for a couple hours. Several strikes, but nothing hooked. Oh well. It started to sprinkle a bit so we headed back in. We decided to go off the menu plan and have the spaghetti and pesto sauce tonight. The old Svea 123 really works well, and this year, I bought an old Optimus 88 pot stand and wind screen. One problem, the stove, when on high flame, is little too hot for the aluminum and melted a section of the top rim of the 88 set. The damage wasn’t too bad, and from now on we’ll keep the flame lower. I think I’ll look for a good used Sigg Tourister set. The Svea is just a little unstable with a big pot on top of its included windscreen. After dinner, we had a little bit of a campfire, but it was just too hot to really enjoy it. We stayed up a few minutes after sunset, but the skeeters came out pretty heavy, so we retired to the safety of the tent. We fell asleep pretty quickly just lying on top of our bags.

DAY 3 – Sunday – Today we are going to move to Silence Lake. It’s not very far so we are in no hurry in the morning. We take our time having a good hot breakfast of oatmeal, tea, and fruit punch. The canoe is loaded and ready by mid-morning and we shove off. We throw a couple lures in to troll and after twenty minutes or so, Sean catches the first fish. It’s a little bass, but it is always good to get that first one! We take a picture and release the little guy to grow up big and strong. The sun is really beating down again today. It’s got to be in the upper 80’s and we are drinking water like mad. We decided to take the shorter portage into Noon Lake. Kind of a steep up and down, so I take canoe this time. Another pretty little lake and the paddling is easy. We troll some more and Sean catches a tiny fish barely big enough to bite one of the hooks on his lure. I had a couple nibbles, but no fish on. Sean hooked a decent sized fish and reeled him all the way to the boat. I reached over to grab the line and bring him in when he jumped and got himself free. He looked to be about 12-14 inches. Sean is having great fun catching fish. I caught weeds. We went on into Summer Lake. Again we trolled while paddling at a very leisurely pace. Again, I got skunked and Sean caught another pretty bass. That fish didn’t seem to want to fight much and we didn’t know he was on for a few minutes. Sean noticed a slightly odd movement on his rod and reeled in to see what it was. We let him go, even though he was big enough to eat. We had a little snack at the short portage into Sultry. I noticed it was getting on into the afternoon, so we opted to just troll with Sean’s rod. He’s the only one catching anything anyway! In Sultry, there is a little narrows just a bit after you enter. I told Sean to look at the features there, trees leaning into the water, some rocks, and some weedy areas on the east shore. This looks like a spot for fish. Sure enough, as Sean’s lure passes through the narrows he gets a strike. He grabs his rod and his eyes pop as he feels the surge of a big one! This guy jumps a few times while Sean is trying to reel him in. He is big enough that I think we might need a net to get him in the boat. Sean gets him close and away he goes pulling out line in whir. What a sound that is! Sean gets him back to the boat and he dives under the boat and tries to get to the other side, but Sean reels him back in. One more time he tries to dash away, but he is pretty tired now and Sean gets him to the side, but he is hesitant to grab the line and bring him in. He is a really nice fish and I tell Sean to just grab the leader and gently lift him into the canoe. WOW! This guy is big enough to feed at least four guys. I forgot which lake we were in and thought we had at least two more portages. We decided to take some pictures and release him. When we get to the portage, I realize we only have the one and we should have kept that guy for dinner. I cracked my rod at the end of the portage into Silence when I dropped a pack into the canoe. Bummer! I’ll try to duct tape it later. The map shows the portage as 40 rods, but it seems closer to 100. The trail was flooded just past the creek crossing and we took the long way around through the grass. It took a little exploring to find the second half of the trail. We sat by the creek and had lunch before going back for our second load. Man, that sun sure was hot! It was difficult to catch my breath on the second leg of the portage. As we entered Silence Lake, the wind picked up from the southwest. A little breeze sure helps! We make our way up the lake, stopping at various campsites along the way. We decide to stay at the campsite closest to the Agnes portage. It has great views to the east, south, and west. There is a very nice tent site here, also, that is grass covered. After we set up camp, we go back out and troll a little while we try to get to a campsite that looked like it had some interesting features. Paddling into the wind is useless as it is blowing pretty strong. We give up after a half hour or so and go back our camp. We jump in for a swim because we are both VERY hot and sweaty. The sun shines directly on our camp until it is almost set. As we eat our pita pizzas for dinner the clouds start to roll in. They look pretty ominous, so we prep the camp for rain. Having the breeze is nice as we are finally getting a little cool down, but we can hear thunder. It sounds like a big storm is rolling right toward us. Sean goes to sleep just after the sun does, but I stay up and watch the lightning get closer and closer. We left the vestibules open to allow air to blow through the tent, so I zip everything up tight before I turn in. The thunderstorm rolls in fast and furious! The thunder sounds much worse than it would at home because we can hear all the echoes. I feel drips of water on my legs. Oh no, the tent is leaking. I sit up to see if Sean is wet, but, luckily he is dry as a bone. The storm is completely passed within 45 minutes and I go out to check things. I can’t believe my eyes! There are no clouds to be seen, even though I can still hear the thunder off to the east. Fresh, cool air and millions of stars keep me up for several minutes. When I hit the hay I sleep as soundly as I have for many weeks. Maybe it will be cooler tomorrow.

DAY 4 – Monday – This will be another layover day so we sleep late and take our time getting the day started. After a long breakfast, we set everything out to dry. Turns out there was water under Sean’s sleeping pad. Then I try to fix my rod. Duct tape will keep it together, but I don’t think I can cast. I can probably troll, but if I catch anything of any significant size I think I’ll probably lose half the rod. Sean woke up several times last night and looks really tired today. The heat is back with a vengeance. We try a little fishing off the rocks, but our heart really is not in it. We play cards for an hour or two. I wash my clothes (no soap, of course) and go swimming five or six times during the day while Sean putters around camp, whittling and whatnot. I ask if he wants to nap. I set up the hammock and he sleeps like a rock. He forgot his sunglasses in the car and I worry that his eyes might be suffering from the constant sun. But he looks better after a good long nap. I set up a spare tarp by the tent so that if need be, we can quickly cover up. That seems to ease Sean’s mind some, and I know I feel better in the knowledge that we’ll stay dry the next time it rains. Doesn’t look like there’ll be rain anytime soon though. The sky has been cloudless all day. After a really tasty Mac&Cheese dinner, we decide to forego a campfire because it’s too darn hot. The skeeters get bad early so we retire to the tent. We both sleep a few hours and wake in the middle of the night. Stars! Finally, I get to show Sean what a real night sky looks like. He has never seen a wilderness starry sky. We sit and stargaze for at least an hour. It is really nice just sitting and talking quietly with my youngest. We see Shooting stars, satellites, a planet or two, the Milky Way, and one object just over the northwest horizon that blinks red, blue, orange. At first I though it was an airliner, but it wasn’t moving, just twinkling. It could be some kind of quasar or pulsar or something; I’m no astronomer, so I can’t really say for sure. Whatever, it is pretty cool and after a while it sets. We finally decide to turn in because we are going down Agnes tomorrow.

DAY 5 – Tuesday - Up early today. Our goal is to get all the way down to Louisa Falls today. We figure it is about 8 miles with only the short little portage from Silence into Agnes. As we enter Agnes, there seems to be a head wind. We’ll never make 8 miles in a headwind, so I started to think of campsites about halfway there. I needn’t have worried. When we came out onto the main body of the lake there was a 20-25 mph wind blowing steady from 20 degrees or so N-NE. We got out into wind and I had to keep the canoe from turning broadside to the following waves. The wind really whipped up the water as we were paddling and we had some scary moments. Some of the swells were higher than the side of our canoe and we had a couple of rocky moments. I couldn’t get to the east shore without risking a capsize. I didn’t want to end up by East Lake which meant we had to be out in the middle of the lake to get into the southeast leg of Agnes. So I just held the bow as directly to the south as possible and we rode those waves down the lake. There were a lot of folks on the lake, and coming up behind was group of three canoes with two men each so if we went over at least someone would see us. That group caught us just as we got to the narrows where the lake splits, about 5 miles north of the falls. It turns out it was the Alabama guys! We gave them their stray water bottle and the one who seemed to be the guide told us of a few nice campsites at the south end of the lake. We had stayed at the big sandy beach on the west shore 2 years ago and that was my first choice. But there is another sandy beach on the east shore, as well as an island site or two. The waves died down some as we entered the more narrow part of the lake. We did not dare try to troll in those swells on the way down, it was enough to just keep her pointed with the waves. Several groups came in just ahead of us from East Lake. One of those, a party of ten, took the big site. Oh well, with just one tent, we knew we would fit just about anywhere. We really flew down the lake. It was not much past noon when we got all the way to the falls and started to scout sites at the south end of the lake. Everything was taken, so we turned into the teeth of that wind and started paddling back north. We only had to go a little more than half a mile and took the little site just north of the big sandy beach. It turns out the tent site here is soft and mossy. A little bit on the slope, but we’ll be just fine. It was very comfortable sleeping on such a soft surface! The fire pit at this site is pretty exposed, but there is a diving spot right off the site. We swam around under the water looking for any hidden rocks...nothing. We could not swim to the bottom or even see the bottom. We dropped a few rocks for soundings. This spot must 40-50 feet deep! Sean was the first one to jump and we spent the afternoon playing in the water, jumping, diving, swimming, sunning. It was very muggy. Did I mention how hot it was? After Ramens and pope’s nose for dinner, Sean was looking kind of down, and I was having trouble cooling down. I just sweated constantly. Our original plan was to spend Thursday night in Sunday Lake, Friday night on Sunday Island and paddle out on Saturday. But the heat had really sapped Sean and me both. We decided to spend as much time as we could at Louisa Falls tomorrow and then go all the way out on Thursday. Clouds rolled in late in the day, so we double tarped the tent and then played cards until we had to put on our headlamps. It rained all night.

DAY 6 – Wednesday - It rained hard for a couple hours in the morning. We just lay in the tent and dozed. Warm, dry, and cozy. As soon as the rain let up, I went and set up our rain fly over the center of the campsite. We cooked oatmeal and scrambled eggs for breakfast and sat around enjoying our tea. It was cooler this morning, which was a relief. The sky threatened more rain, so we puttered around camp and read until early afternoon. The clouds had broken up, so we packed lunch and headed for the falls. We had the falls all to ourselves! It was GREAT! Cool, refreshing, exciting, bubbly, frothy...just all around fun! It sprinkled a little on us while we were at the top, but we didn’t care. We explored the pond above the falls, climbed up and down a bit next to the falls, and finally ate lunch at the base. Our spirits were much better today as we skipped stones for over an hour. Eventually, some other people came and we headed back to camp. We played some cards and looked over the map to see how tomorrow would be. I already knew because I had come out this way 2 years ago. Two fairly long portages would start our day. We decided to try for the North portage on the way out because it looked like it might save us a chunk of time. We had grilled cheese and sausage for dinner. And then decided to pack up everything, including the kitchen and stove, have a cold breakfast of granola and fruit punch, and get on the water as early as possible. We went to bed early and were asleep before the sun had fully set.

DAY 7 – Thursday – The clouds cleared out overnight and we woke to a cloudless dawn. We got up, broke camp, had breakfast, loaded the canoe and were on the water just as the sun was starting to peek over the trees. Paddling on that early morning water was very serene. We were the only people stirring and we reached the portage into Meadows Lake in just a few minutes. It was still cool as we carried everything over. The rocks were wet still from the rain and it was bit slippery. Sean left a few items so he did a third trip back and forth while I swatted mosquitoes on the shore of Meadows. Around the corner and we arrived at our longest portage of the trip, 193 rods into Sunday Lake. I guess it was about 9 a.m. when we started over with the first load. Sean had never carried a full pack anywhere near that far. He was pretty sore by the time he finished that first leg. He wasn’t going to do three trips on this portage! I slipped while carrying the canoe and twisted my knee. (I think I tore that same left knee meniscus as I did two years ago on the North portage. It ain’t no fun gettin’ old!) I could see Sean was really beat down by that portage. We met a party just coming in and they told me it was 9:45 when we were just about shoving off into Sunday. There was a headwind picking up, so I told Sean, “Why beat ourselves up? Let’s take Burke Lake and go easy on the portaging.” He whole-heartedly agreed. We paddled to the Singing Brook Portage and watched as a canoe ahead of us just pulled up and over. We decided to try it, and VOILA, it only took 20 seconds or so. The guys who had pulled over ahead of us??? Well, it was a couple of the Alabama guys doing a day trip and fishing at the mouth of Singing Brook (and catching lots of nice looking fish, I might say!) Sean’s spirits were quite high as we paddled down Burke Lake. I reminded him that the next portage was very easy and we had lots of time, so we took it easy. At the Burke Lake portage, we met a young family from Madison going in for two weeks. They were very kind and helped us complete the portage. I went back and took the last few items for our last trip over. When we had the canoe packed Sean noticed that he could not find the GPS tracker we had rented from VNO (he had been pressing the OK button at each portage all week.) I went back to Burke while he started searching the packs. It was hot again and I really did not enjoy scratching around in the grass and under logs looking for that little thing. I looked for about a half hour and found nothing. I knew it must be in one of the packs and, sure enough, as I was walking back the Bayley Bay beach, Sean called out that he had found it. We had a little granola and water before we pushed off into Bayley Bay and paddled into Prairie Portage. The rangers called VNO to tell them we were out early and arrange a tow back into Vossberg’s. We sat around at Prairie Portage and waited for our tow. A little granola and some punch went down nicely. As soon as we got the boat onto the car, there was a single thunderhead that poured down on us for ten minutes or so. We got back to VNO around 3, took a room, showered and went over to the steakhouse for a big dinner. There we talked with a mother, father and son who lived just outside Ely. The son had mushed across northern Greenland with a descendant of Matthew Henson. He (the son) had gone there with National Geographic to give a posthumous award to the Henson family. It was quite a story! When we got back to the room, Sean and I were beat down tired, but feeling grand.

Closing Thoughts. – Two years ago I had promised Sean that I would take him canoeing as soon as he was big enough to carry a canoe. We originally had planned a trip of six, including two 12 year olds. But through various issues, including changes in family vacations, Boy Scout camp schedule changes, and my good buddy, Pete, having a heart attack early in the summer, we ended up with just the two of us. (Pete is OK and doing fine.) But I was not going to cancel if there was any way to honor my promise. I think if we had had a larger group we probably would have followed our original schedule and stayed through Friday night. As it was, I must say that having a week and a half alone with my youngest son was a real treat. I have not had anywhere near that much time alone with the older two. They are both away at college and now that this trip is done, I wish I had spent a week or so alone with each of them at some point. I got to know what makes Sean tick, how he thinks, and a lot of what he thinks about. I also found out that Sean is very good with a map and that he makes some very good decisions based on sound, clear, rational thinking. It makes me feel good to see that in him. I am going to try to plan another trip together again before he goes off to college in just a few short years.