Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

First BWCA trip- Ensign - Solo
by HawksEye

Trip Type: Paddling Kayak
Entry Date: 09/02/2010
Entry & Exit Point: Moose Lake (EP 25)
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
UNIQUE- As different as day and night. Day 0- My last ditch shopping need was a second piece of Tyvek for a rain shelter- yes, rain was in the forecast for my very first day in BWCA. I headed to an Austin, MN lumber yard that claimed they sold Tyvek by the foot. However, in person, they admitted it wasn't Tyvek, but a plastic product that weathers better than Tyvek. I had to settle for a blue tarp instead, and hit the road around 4 pm. [paragraph break]I managed to survive what I considered the most dangerous part of the trip- rush hour through downtown Minneapolis. My friend called, worried 'bout me, wondering if I would call her right before I lost cell phone coverage so if no one heard from me, she could tell folks where last contact was made. How reassuring is that? I told her I wouldn't know where “right before“ was, I'd only know where “no coverage” was. lol. I pulled into Ely around 11 pm, and slept in the car on a dark side street near VNO.
Day 1 of 5
Day 1- Rain pelting the car woke me up at 5:25 a.m. Rain-- is that an ominous way to start the trip? I discovered VNO doesn't open at 5 a.m. (like it said on their website) but at 6. Another warning? At 6, the place was bustling. I sat down to watch the required video and chatted with a nice fellow from Kawai on his way out. He loved the VNO food and coffee. He claimed Minnesota women impressed him- I was headed in alone for my first trip to BWCA and he had just met another woman who was going bear hunting. I bought two maps and picked up my entry permit. I was warned to expect bear at Ensign. I wished I had asked more questions- especially about fishing and bears, but I wasn't dropping enough money there to feel like I could justify monopolizing their time.

The EP was just a few miles up the road. When I stepped out of the car to survey the boat launch, the rain stopped and the call of a loon greeted me. Cool, very cool. I've only seen loons once before. The second bird I heard was a bald eagle. What a wonderful way to begin my trip! I unloaded the car and packed the boat before the rain returned. Sweet- perhaps things would work out, after all!? Somehow I didn't get out on the water until 'bout 8:30 a.m. How is that possible?

Full of excitement, anticipation, trepidation, and wee bit of fear, I paddled north-- all by myself. The rain returned, but my new spray skirt and splash jacket kept me dry. The gloves were not waterproof, but they prevented blisters and helped retain some warmth. I kept checking the map and discovered it to be fairly accurate down to the small islands in Moose lake. I was reassured that I could easily track my location and progress on the map. I was passed by numerous tow boats (and a canoe w/2 DNR officers, post-script details at the end) but the trip to Splash lake went quite quickly- I was pleasantly surprised. There was no cell phone coverage anywhere I checked. Maybe I should have left the phone in the car.

First Portage- Kayaks are great, but packing them requires a lot more finesse than packing a canoe. I packed in multiple dry bags that I strapped to an external frame pack to portage. But, I hadn't done a trial run with loaded bags before I left home. After I strapped most of the gear to the frame pack I discovered I couldn't lift the darn thing onto my back. I vowed to pack lighter next time. So, it looked like my portages would be 5 trips- two with gear, one with boat, two return. Good grief! I'm really, really glad I planned a simple trip. It felt like it took a zillion attempts and 20 minutes to get the boat up onto the backpack, but up it went and off I strolled down the portage. The balance line worked like a charm and the boat rode quite nicely on the backpack frame. I managed to dump the boat off the pack, reload, and paddle off into Splash lake. I found my excitement building as I quickly paddled the length of little Splash Lake; just ahead was Ensign-- my home for the next 4 days! Splash Lake was small and the portage into Ensign was a simple stand up with one foot in the boat and one in the creek and walk the boat 10 feet. Easy!!!

Ensign! My eyes scanned the lake ahead for landmarks like “the narrows”-- an area recommended for walleye fishing. Excitement loomed ahead- adventures to come, but straight below the boat, I saw the major disappointment of my first BWCA trip. The water was full of some type of green algae. I found myself wanting to ID it, with visions of volvox- tiny green balls- an ocean of green balls flashing through my mind. I thought the lakes up here would be crystal clear. Did I have to put this stuff through my borrowed water filter? It would clog on the first gallon. Did the stuff go down three feet? Six feet? Twenty feet? Yikes!

The rain let up as I rounded a point on the SE end of Ensign. I said 'hello' to a couple in a canoe. They had caught a walleye and a bass that morning and in their wonderful southern accent, they recommended a beautiful little campsite just ahead. I ended up choosing that site over the one I was shooting for- it was a very pretty spot. After briefly exploring the trails leading out of the site, I returned to the campsite to come face-to-face with a grouse. We stared at each other for a few moments. Neat birds, neat sighting! With rain threatening again, I hurried to set up my rain shelter. It went up on the first try in the first spot! I am a rookie. Small successes must be celebrated!

Second order of business was to hang my sleeping hammock. There were two awesome gnarled trees anchored to the rocks at the point of the campsite- right next to the lake. What a perfect spot for my hammock! I seized the momentum of my first success and strung up the hammock in minutes, noting, but doing my best to ignore the claw marks on both the trees. I picked up a torn zip-lock bag from the rocks under my hammock, cursing messy campers and paying more attention to the instructions on the bag, than the unconventional way the bag had been opened. While stringing out the guy lines for my rain fly, I noticed a pile of … well... what I guessed must be bear scat. BUT, it was a really cool place to hang a hammock!

Next, I set to finding a place to hang my food bag. A rocky gully looked perfect, but after twenty minutes of failed attempts, I decided to look elsewhere. Before I left the gully, though, I noticed some potatoes scattered on the ground. As I returned to camp, I cast a serious eye at my hammock location: the two claw-scarred trees, the broken branch about 10 feet up, the waste below. I could no longer avoid the conclusion that I had hung my hammock the same place someone had previously hung a food bag, and the same location a bear had successfully procured a meal. Real smart, eh?

I return to the food bag problem and made attempts at two additional locations using two different methods. The question-mark shaped wooden rope-hanger-thingies I shamelessly copied from a link posted on, were fun to hang over branches with my kayak paddle, but I did not find a satisfactory location where the bag was elevated high enough off the ground on strong enough branches. As a last resort, I found a birch tree leaning out towards the lake. I hoisted a rope & pully and got the food bag nice and high off the ground. I wasn't 100% satisfied, because I could picture a bear walking up this leaning tree, pulling (or chewing) up the line, and getting all my food, but the day was slipping away and it was beginning to rain again, so I resigned myself to the fact that it was the best I could do today. Perhaps I could try something else tomorrow.

The rain dripping off my tarp was funneled into my empty water bag, the solar shower bag, and my water bottles. The borrowed, poorly reviewed, leaking Katydyn gravity water filter system would not be put through the torture of filtering green lake water on this trip. Rain water would suffice. NOTE TO SELF: buy an in-line Sawyer water filter to attach to the solar bag- maybe a Y tubing adaptor -- double-duty, eh?

The Blackbird hammock was quickly moved to a lovely circle of pine trees behind the campsite. My home-made Tyvek rain canopy was strung over the hammock. If you haven't had the pleasure of working with Tyvek, you should! You can glue on reinforcing tabs and punch holes instead of depending on metal grommets. It is the material that the slippery white first-class mailing envelops are made from. Tyvek is strong, light-weight, and when brand-spanking new, it sounds quite a bit like aluminum foil. Now, imagine your first night in the great outdoors of the northwoods. Imagine constant rain, pelting down on aluminum just inches from your head. I wished I had packed ear plugs! I was too tired - mentally and physically-- to cook. I think I had crackers and Nutella for supper then retired to the hammock at dusk.

Once the physical labors of the day were behind me, I realized my brain had very little to do other than to rehash all the bear stories I have ever read, including one about a polar bear entering a tent. Fortunately, the rain drowned out any and all forest noises, so reality did not interfere with my imaginary fears. After an hour of anxiety, I drifted off into sleep. I awoke in a minor panic at 4:20 a.m. when my sleeping bag brushed my cheek. No, it was not a bear sniffing me... it was not a bear, it was not a bear, it was not a bear...

Moose Lake, Newfound Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake