solo canoe trip, spring creek, a BWCA first , also a bigfoot
I arrive at the trailhead very late at night, maybe after 2 am. I don’t wear a watch on these trips. I am tired but very glad to be here. In the dark I can feel the kawishiwi river, I am on a solo trip, it doesn’t take me long to find my wilderness instincts. I find the sound of the river current a bit unsettling. I did not plan to deal with this powerful of a river, this late in the year, on a solo canoe trip.
In the morning, after a frozen night in my bivy sack and lightweight sleeping bag I go to view the river. My instincts were right; the river is full, almost out of the banks. I note that the strong current is carrying much forest debris. This should be an interesting trip.
By packing ultralite I manage to get all my gear in a small pack, I should be able to portage my solo canoe and pack over most of the portages. This is the BWCA, if there is a current there is probably a portage, I wasn’t overly concerned about the dangers.
Fortunately, as I flip up my bell canoe, my home made yoke pads break immediately. This is certainly good fortune I think. I really didn’t like the looks of the kawishiwi that day, taking chances in this cold weather on a solo trip seemed like, and was, a bad idea.
I drive into Ely to buy a portage yoke. I note very little, maybe no, canoe traffic in town. It appears that I have the entire BWCA to myself.
I can choose any of the wonderful access points on the echo trail. I carry maps of the entire BWCA with me in my car; I am limited only by my imagination.
I end up choosing the angleworm access. I love beautiful angleworm lake. I often backpack around it, but I haven’t canoed it for years. So what if it is a 720 rod portage? Really it is a backpacking trail, except I am carrying a canoe and all my gear, hopefully in one trip.
I should mention that I had been diagnosed with a very rare neurological disorder. At this point in my disease it had been predicted that I would be in a nursing home. Yet here I am, about to begin the 720 rod portage to angleworm lake. My disorder has the unfortunate effect of messing with my cognitive processes. At times my decision making skills may be impared, this may have had an impact on my choosing this hellish portage into the BWCA as my entry point.
As I start the 716 rod portage to angleworm lake I remember how this section of trail sucks with just a backpack. It really sucks carrying a canoe and all your gear, one trip. I pack ultralight. No tent, just a bivy sack. It still feels like hell. This is real pain. About halfway up this portage a bridge crosses spring creek. This is a good time for a break. I note that spring creek is now a raging little river. I have often planned on a winter snowshoe hike up spring creek, it looks very interesting on the maps.
In my impaired brilliance I consider a route change. What if I were to canoe down spring creek to where it meets with the beartrap river? The thought of lugging my crap up another mile of hiking trail started to weigh on me. That was it then. I decided that spring creek, being that the water levels were so high, would make a dandy little adventure. I knew from over forty years of canoeing that I could drag my canoe anywhere, thank you royalex.
I was to soon find out that spring creek, not to my surprise, is a meandering little creek. I was surprised however by the many rapids and the uncountable beaver dams. Progress was considerably slower than I had expected. I knew when I began on spring creek that there was a chance that I may not make it to a campsite. I didn’t. I know the forest service does not allow bush camping, but in winter they allow you to camp anywhere. Being that it was below freezing at night I decided that I was winter camping and made my camp for the night in the marshes. In my years of camping I have been in some really crappy campsites. This one, on spring creek, was as nasty as it gets. I laid my bivy sack on a muddy trail used by beavers, the sound of a small rapids lulling me to sleep. The following morning, after freezing all night in the cold marsh air I made a quick departure. I was freezing. My clothes were wet from my struggle down the creek. I brought very little in the way of spare clothes, ultralight, as it was much colder than I expected I was wearing pretty much all the clothes that I had brought.
Spring creek was indeed a very interesting river. I felt a true sense of wilderness. As far as I know this river receives very little, if any, canoe traffic. I love paddling down meandering creeks through open marshes. I was fortunate that my little 14 foot canoe made many of the impossible tight river twists easily negotiable. My bell canoe is the hero of spring creek.
I eventually made it to the beartrap river, and Sunday lake. Already I was behind what little plan that I had made. The beartrap was very high; I actually ran many rapids that in lower water would have required portaging. One nice thing about canoeing when the temperatures are near freezing is remarkably few bugs. Ok. No bugs. The beartrap river has some nice scenery. It is rough going in lower water. The last time I paddled this river I used the Wenonah three man canoe. My fourteen foot bell canoe has many advantages on these small rivers.
One nice thing about paddling by yourself is you can do anything you want, I decided to try to make it to curtain falls for the night. After last nights beaver camp I was anxious to make it to a favorite campsite on iron lake, near curtain falls.
The beartrap enters iron lake on the south end. It was nice to be on large water. My little canoe, dubbed a “utility” canoe on the websites, does not shine on large expanses of water. She really doesn’t want to track well. I use a kayak paddle on these bigger lakes and the little canoes performance is acceptable.
My favorite campsite, on iron lake, located just east of three island, was, not surprisingly, unoccupied. From here it is an easy paddle to curtain falls. I set up my campsite, such as it is, and took advantages of the remaining light to paddle up to the falls.
The river beneath the falls was running very high. To get to the portage I had to paddle up a small section of fast water. This is a short section of river where I have seen many canoeists loose control of there boats in the powerful currents. I am by myself, the BWCA seems empty except for me, and the lake water is getting ready to become ice. I certainly was not interested in swimming at this time. With the empty canoe I did make it to the portage with no problems, however, it was scary. It’s a no-no to take chances like this. The BWCA is really a wilderness when you have it to yourself. I felt as isolated as if I were in Alaska.
The falls are beautiful, a must see for anyone paddling this wilderness. I have visited them many times since I was a kid. Knowing that the portage trail is an ancient travel route adds to the falls mystique.
I have used this campsite many times. It has treasured memories. I sleep well, I will need it because my route keeps growing and my speed in the Yellowstone canoe keeps getting slower.
With the canoe loaded I decide to portage on the Canadian side. I did not want to risk running up the boiling currents with my canoe loaded with gear. The Canadian portage, if it exists, was not to be found. The forest is fairly open here, all magnificent white pines. However my five dollar calvin kline heavy wool pants that I bought at a used clothes store were ripped to shreds. I guess calvin never planned on his pants being used in the Canadian wilds.
The next several hours would be spent paddling down crooked lake. This lake is a gem. However it was foggy and navigating was and always is a challenge. At one time in my life I was a land surveyor. I can humbly state that I am an expert with map and compass. I still got screwed up and paddled down Saturday bay. I will blame it on the fog. My route was to take me to Friday bay and up the papoose river through a chain of lake to wagoosh lake. The papoose river is delightful, a lovely combination of mature pine forests and creek side bogs. The fall colors in the bogs were stunning. The tamaracks were a golden yellow. As nice a day of canoeing as I have had in a long time, and it was a good thing, tomorrow would be a challenging day of canoeing, or I should say portaging.
From wagoosh lake my route would take me to gun lake, portage 328 hilly rods, then a simple 32 rod portage to gull lake. From gull to home lake is a 272 rod portage that contains one very steep uphill climb, this portage crosses the angleworm hiking trail. There are no direction markers here so be sure you don’t wander off on the hiking trail. From home lake to angleworm is a short 65 rod portage that seemed much longer than it was. From angleworm I am home free after a 726 rod portage back to my car. A total of 1423 rods. A lot of it hilly. That is almost four and a half miles, some of which I was going to have to double back for my pack, I didn’t think I would be able to make it through the day if I carried all my gear in a single trip. As it was this is a beautiful area, the portaging didn’t seem as bad as I thought it would be. A good attitude can carry you a long way. I made it to my car just as it was getting dark. This was indeed a killer day of canoe hiking, at my car, though, a sad old Volvo, I was delighted to find that some kind person had left a bag of fresh vegetables on the hood of my car. A perfect end to my day.
I have to mention one thing about the angleworm trail. It is a popular hike because the lake is outstanding. Huge pines and rocky bluffs make this one of the best trails in the state. At times it is difficult to find the trail, however. Several hikers have been lost, their bodies never found. When I hike this trail I always keep my eyes open. One hiker’s last known location was at the backpack campsite on whiskey jack lake. His body has never been found.
On gull lake, on the south shore, near where the Mackenzie map shows the lake elevation, is a fairly large rock several feet from shore. The rock is roundish and protrudes several feet above water level. As I was paddling I noticed several vertebrae laying on the rock where the rock had a smallish flat area, I thought it odd. By this point in the day I was getting a little goofy, fatigue and my previously mentioned cognitive problems gave me the cool idea of taking one of these vertebrae as something to wear like a manly necklace. As I began the portage to home lake I tossed the bone. Even its little weight was more than I was interested in carrying. As the portage crossed the angleworm hiking trail it suddenly dawned on me that the bone may have been from the lost hiker. I looked at the map and it is possible that this man, probably suffering from hypothermia had mistakenly got on the portage trail to gull lake; maybe in his delirium he somehow found his way to the south shore of gull lake. It is tough country to bushwhack, but it is possible. I thought of the bone that I tossed back at the beginning of the portage. I considered how these bones could have been on that rock. It was really unlikely that a deer or moose could have somehow crawled up that steep rock and died, also really unlikely that wolves could have pulled it to that site. Maybe crows could have carried the bones there, but there were several vertebrae, it must have been fairly heavy.
I have watched as a friend of mine suffered hypothermia, and I almost died of hypothermia on the side of a mountain in Alaska. I know how it can affect you. Could this lost hiker have chosen to die on this rock? I thought it very likely. Although I have no idea if the bone was human or animal I chose to go back, 270 rods, to the beginning of the portage and find the bone. I did find it and thought the best thing to do would to be to bring it to the forest service or the Ely police.
I am not crazy although I do crazy things. I have spent a lot of time in wolf country and have heard their calls for years. They are an amazing animal, endlessly fascinating. I do not fear them. What happened next on this portage trail was something that I have never experienced. It was probably around three in the afternoon, a time when I have never heard wolves howl. Yet, as I retrieved the bone, wolves started hollowing all around me. They were calling from both directions on the portage trail and continued until I reached the steep hill on the portage. It was rather unnerving, my arm hairs were standing. This side trip added a mile and a half to my days hiking pleasure.
This was a super trip, very scenic with a great variety canoeing, and portaging. Mid to late October may be a bit cold for most peoples canoeing pleasures, but the BWCA is truly very wild at this time. If you want to do this trip yourself email me for details. I can also refer you to a very competent psychiatrist.
On reflection I would have to rate this trip as challenging, yet the isolation and sense of wild made it worth the efforts.
PS: I wrote a post in a Bigfoot forum after this trip. I must have been overmedicated, as I wrote this big BS story about how the bigfoots of gull lake were eating hikers and had a pack of wolves working for them. If you happen to be a fan of Bigfoot stories and in the unlikely event you read my ridiculous post. I apologize. At the time I thought it was funny as hell.