BWCA Frost River Solo Trip, June 1996
Got my canoe and was on the water before 8 am. Canoe was a Sawbill Outfitters rental Mad River Malecite kevlar tandem, which I paddled solo from the front seat, making the stern the bow. With my gear stored mostly to the front it rode well in most conditions. Apparently the canoe was a “Demo” (sample?) – I never asked – because from my paddling position, I could read “omeD” through the hull.
I had easy going up beautiful Sawbill Lake under blue skies with some fair weather clouds. Passed the island with the BWCA sign and noticed how the lake was mostly spruce woods to the water’s edge few rocky shores. In the very upper end I had some wind to deal with. A man/woman couple and I were heading the same direction and wound up meeting each other coming and going on the first few portages, none of which were difficult.
The day continued clear as I passed through Ada Creek, Ada Lake and Scoop Lake. The 180-rod portage to Cherokee Creek was quite a workout – over the Laurentian Divide” – for my first day, and seemed longer than I had expected. Had hoped to see moose in the creek, a likely looking spot, but none showed.
Took my time, the weather changing, even sprinkling once. Got to pretty Cherokee Lake around 1 pm and had a snack/lunch at the first campsite on the West shore. Continued up the West side, checking the map against what I was seeing on the water and deciding how far to go this first day. Several sites were occupied – Cherokee looked to be a popular spot – but there were several nice looking open ones too.
Spotted a bear in a clearing – possibly a campsite – fairly close. He saw me too, and did a quick turnaround for cover. At around 3 pm I stopped -- last campsite on the west side -- and called it home for the night. Put up the 2-man Walrus tent I had bought just before the trip when two fishers (or pine martens?) – they were both solid black – played tag through the campsite! What a zoo -- just like home. I grabbed the point-and-shoot camera and got a photo.
Cooked a freeze-dried sweet and sour pork meal and drank a cup of my co-worker Jerry’s Lapsang Souchong tea, (which for years afterward became my favorite wilderness beverage) and had raisins for desert” After rigging the food pack up a tree near the shore, I went to the biffy and was attacked by a gazillion mosquitoes, but there were none by the fire or tent areas.
Campsite was fairly small, closed-in by small and medium-sized balsam firs, with tent clearing away from the cooking area where nice big logs provided seats. There was a nice sunrise-facing rock slab shore. Two men paddled north, apparently to fish Gordon Lake in the evening. Tired, I tried fishing a little while from the shore north of camp with no luck. At dusk some north winds brought on a thick cloudiness. Got some evening sprinkles, went to bed early, woke up once, later in the night and the sky was filled with stars. A great day in the BWCA.
Day 2, Tuesday, June 25
Morning crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky. Gathered my gear on the big slab rocks by shore and took pictures showing before and after how gear packs down, for some folks back home who were interested in that. Paddled north towards Gordon Lake at 8:30 am, taking pictures at the portage and of the lake, which was pretty with neat rocky ledges and lots of steep shoreline. Saw and photoed what looked like small groundhogs (“woodchucks” back home) sitting upright on the shore. (Not sure what they were.)
It was still and calm, water like glass as I took my time up Gordon Lake, as it is small and so pretty that it seemed too nice to hurry through. The 140-rod portage to Unload Lake was not too bad. Saw a glimpse of something black on the trail or crossing the trail while carrying the canoe over – another fisher -- or a bear? (Will never know.) Unload Lake is a neat little lake/pond that deserves a better name. The easy portage into Frost Lake had poor access to the water at the East end, but the lake was beautiful beneath a clear sky with warm sun shining down.
I paddled onto Frost and headed slightly north of its middle passing a signature “gull rock” with noisy residents. When I saw the far northwest camp area with the long sand beach and an open but shady tent area I had to stop and stay even though it was not quite noon. I was determined to slow down and not “bust butt” on this trip – and after all, the description of the rest of the Frost River route suggested that a nice rest ahead of the hardest going would be a good idea. (This proved to be very true!)
Checking out the “throne” behind the campsite led to the discovery of a large cove or bog area with a small pond of open water and moose trails and crap everywhere. Cool! (This appeared to be an area that years before would have been open water but due to beaver work or just lower water levels, was “becoming” land.)
The sand beach was covered with yellow butterflies that I guess were sunning and/or drinking from the moist sand, and someone had left a Jeremiah Johnson-like “shrine” of sticks, stones, feathers, shells and etc., on the beach, which I of course added to during my time there. (In later years I would grow to dislike seeing things like this in the wilderness.) It was getting pretty hot so I decided to take a rinse/bath in the very shallow water off the beach. The water was surprisingly cool and I got a leech on my big toe – a first for me.
About 4:30 pm I walked east down the beach towards what appeared to be a narrow opening that went back in and around to the northwest to form the cove I mentioned before, and I walked right up on a big bull moose in velvet. Got close(!) – approx. 50-60 yards. Took some pictures which after developing looked like he was further away. Loafed/napped and wandered away the day here feeling like Robinson Crusoe on a tropical desert isle. I could smell smoke late in the evening and thought the gathering clouds to the southeast looked yellowish. I wondered if the Brule Lake fire had rekindled? I thought of the firefighters I’d talked to in town and hoped not.
This was a great location – the layout, beach view – saw no one when I came from Cherokee to Frost but saw several paddlers cross Frost after I arrived. Fairly late – 7 pm – someone paddled into shore just south of me, out of sight, apparently at another site. Got into the Walrus tent rather early, 8 or so, was dozing when a noise woke me. Looking out of the tent door, I saw the bull moose in the water right in front of camp, very close to shore. Snapped a picture, got out of tent took another photo, then waved my arms and encouraged him to move on, which he did. Great stuff; what a day!
After taking a “day off” yesterday, today was really a “day on”. I did not try to count portages or watch the map. There were many small beaver dams, twists, turns, narrow water paths, weeds closing in around the canoe “trail” through the marshy “river” and so on. (In my mind Frost River became “Beaver Dam Creek”.) In places, the canoe would have been hidden from view from a few yards off in an “African Queen”-like setting of grasses and water plants.
Took photos of the highlights/lowlights of the day – a weathered lower moose jaw, mud, HUGE beaver lodge, a hole busted in huge beaver dam – and the scenery. The beaver dam with the one end busted out was the largest beaver dam I’ve ever seen and it occurred to me that maybe someone had broken it out on purpose. The “pond” behind it had sticky mud banks for some distance where water had recently been maybe three feet deep. Weather started out clear and fair, soon turned gray, was gray most of the day, then returned to clear. Started talking to my canoe today, calling it “Omed” – it did not talk back.
Did not seem as hot today. At 2:30 pm, I arrived at the 20-rod portage at Afton Lake. This was the toughest short portage I’d ever seen, and still is. I could hardly step up onto the rising rock slope without a pack or canoe, but somehow I did it with each. (Here I really missed a partner who could have taken one end of the canoe.) It went practically straight up and then straight down in roughly 100 yards. If it were a long portage, someone would surely have given it some neat name by now. The lakes between Frost and Mora were pretty, but with no good campsites and a pesky wind, I did not take time to explore or fish.
Found a decent spot on Mora Lake, then paddled on to check out another possible site shown on my map, and after not finding it, collected driftwood for a fire and returned to the first one about 5 pm. No one else appeared to be on Mora and I only saw 5 persons all day, two groups – one of three women, one of two men -- going the opposite way from me. Set up camp and spent the nice, short evening trying to decide on tomorrow’s route – to Little Saganaga or a loop up through Gillis Lake – or what?
Did not hurry today and had the right attitude to paddle, push, pull and carry for 9 hours! Today’s move was a long, hard and rewarding one. It was the second longest, but not hardest or hottest day I’ve spent on the go in BWCA. (First place goes to the 14-mile solo jaunt from Fishdance Lake to Lake Four last year in record hot weather. Ely hit 100.) Today was good! I was pleasantly tired – not exhausted – and felt like I belonged right there, and nowhere else!
Day 4, Thursday, June 27
Got up at six with a clearing sky after some rain during the night, then spent nearly two hours to eat, dry out tent/fly, and pack up. Tossed and turned last night and still felt tired this morning and so decided not to head for Gillis and the big loop. Too many portages, too little paddling and I need to spend a more restful day anyway. Got my wish and then some!
Going into Little Saganaga, on the ancient looking (logging days remnant, I guess) “dock” before the pretty portage, I popped my left hip lifting while shouldering the canoe. Stopped at the first campsite for rest/snack and could not sit in my usual Indian-style because of hip pain. Paddled on out to the main part of the lake and up the East/NE side past several nice campsites. Came to a nice site at about 11:30AM on the North center part of Lil Sag, still thinking of heading on to Gabi Lake, etc. Had lunch, hip hurting, wind picking up, so I stayed, and stayed . . .
By 4:30PM it was both hot AND windy. I spent all afternoon under my fly in its shade. Took a “bath,” decided to stay put. Rigged the tent/fly for rain though not expecting any and loafed away the rest of daylight. (Had to figure out a way to use some log “dead men” to tie the tarp lines to for shade. A huge rock area a little above lake level gave a panoramic view of much of the north part of the lake.
Saw only one party of two canoes heading towards Gabi portage in late afternoon, but there was no one else camped or fishing in the area. It got pretty hot again, so I drank plenty of water and stayed out of the sun. Great spot to loaf – large smooth rock areas, no bugs – well a couple deer flies – one of which I photographed sitting on Gabi Lake on my map.
At one moment with the sun mostly behind a small cloud bank and some spindly spruce partially blocking it made a classic composition. Photographed a great sunset of a three quarters full moon out in front of my shore and went to bed with the tent door open. After dark a few mosquitoes found me so I had to zip up. I called this my “free” day, as in “buy five get one free.” (That’s what the notes said, folks.) Hip was feeling better by bedtime.
Day 5, Friday, June 28
Beautiful morning but a little windy for solo paddling. Started back the way I’d come at 8AM, regretting not getting further. It was pretty dicey at times, I could have used a bow paddler’s help into and across winds most of the way back to the narrows before the Mora portage. Little Sag was very popular today – campers, fishing parties – but no one in the East narrows though, or on Mora, like before.
At the portage trail end from Mora to Whipped Lake, I saw four guys in two canoes stopped, a little down and to the right (West) side. After slowly paddling over that way, I found out there was a big bull moose almost submerged and feeding in a watery arm that goes Northwest off the main lake. Got some pictures – of them watching him – once again, what a zoo! Could have stayed longer here, but felt the urge to move on. Further on down Whipped there was a large party – quite large – heading opposite to me. In passing, I saw that one person (kid?) was wearing full mosquito netting, head to foot! (Maybe severely allergic?)
The 300-rod Fent L. to Hub L. portage seemed long and it was not flat like I had read. I survived, however. Crossed Hub too quickly, I later decided. All of its three sites had to be nicer than any of the four on Mesaba Lake where I later stopped for the night. I took the Southwestern Mesaba site at 3:30PM and as it turned out, “just in time”. This site was small, had poor access and sat up a steep bank from the lake. The cooking area was OK, and there was room for one tent, but it lacked any character, and was really a last resort site.
It was getting windy again and clouding up, so I put up the tent and fly quickly and began hearing distant thunder. Got a little rain shower about 4:30, but nothing big. After that, I cooked, ate, cleaned up and put up the food pack. Began hearing more thunder, getting closer, and much more serious sounding. At 5:35 the storm hit – the worst I’ve ever been out in.
I laid spread-eagled in the little two-man tent, literally thinking I could keep it from being blown away. Water ran between the floor and the ground – very cooling! It blew and poured for about thirty-five minutes; seemed like a lifetime. For ten to fifteen minutes I really wondered if I would be blown away! Lightening flashed nearby and winds slammed and shook the tent. (Fortunately, there were few trees – no large ones – around the tent.) Then it was over, and at 6:35 only a few drips and a distant rumble remained. Estimated rainfall at two inches, but not a drop in the Walrus tent! (I wrote thanking the company when I got home.)
Day 6, Saturday, June 29
This was anticipation day, of the Lujenida portage and the end of trip ahead. Took a while to dry things out before packing. It had rained more during the night, but nothing like the Friday evening downpour. Water was running everywhere – even down portage trails – but the day looked clear ahead. Tried to slice off a finger tip in Duck Lake closing my Swiss army knife. Stopped to re-tape it and eat “lunch” on Zenith Lake before the big portage. (Could not find the campsite shown on the map for Zenith, by the way.)
The day was getting hot again, like yesterday, 80-plus, and after all the rain, of course, HUMID. Got on the 480 rod Lujenida portage about 12:30PM. Took my time and set a less than head-pounding pace, and soon found that plenty of water (an understatement) would just about cut the big portage in half, but there would be no dry feet on this one! I’ll have a reason to come back – to see how bad it is after a dry spell.
Lujenida Lake looked great. There was an actual “current” and beautiful water plants, rocks, trees and clouds. Lujenida and upper Kelso – where does the one stop and the other start(?) – were lovely, and more interesting than any other lakes on the trip. Took pictures, including some of the Viking rock thing. Pretty awesome! Did not realize I was into Kelso until I saw another canoe and did a few double-takes at the maps.
Found and headed down the arm of Kelso for the portage into Sawbill Lake. Easy walk and pretty view here, felt good to be almost finished, yet I could easily have camped here and canoed more the next day! Getting windy as usual, and from the south, so I had to fight it some to the Sawbill dock. Treaded water off shore while several canoes loaded and got started, complete with aluminum folding chairs and huge coolers. (Lots of day-trippers or people going no further than Sawbill, I guessed.)
Took a hot shower at the outfitters after turning in Omed and learned that the road leading to Tofte and the north shore of Lake Superior had been washed out(!) – and then fixed – after the Friday storm. No tornados had been spotted, but straight-line winds of 60-70mph had been recorded. I drove down to Tofte and spent the night at a motel on Lake Superior. The firefighting crews had gone home, and tomorrow I would too.
As I reflected while typing my notes, the Frost River trip stands out as my favorite BWCA trip to date (2010). The mostly great weather, a storm of a lifetime, plentiful wildlife, relative solitude, variety of water and scenery, along with a few physically demanding portages and one very long day made for a truly memorable trip. While all these seldom come together in one package, the Frost River afforded opportunities that are not available in many areas. I definitely recommend this trip to others and want to return again myself, possibly in the late summer or fall, for the full Lujenida carry!