Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Kawnipi - June 2011
by immgr

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/17/2011
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
My son and I took our fourth annual trip to Quetico from June 17-23, 2011. Trip reports from the previous three trips are contained at these trip report links:

2008 –

2009 –

2010 –

As before, thanks to all of you on the BCWA discussion board for your help and advice.

This trip was the realization of our ultimate Quetico goal – reaching Kawnipi. I had heard about this lake for a long time and had originally planned on making it our first trip four years ago, but as I learned more about the trip length and portages, I decided to work up to this trip over the past three years to gain more experience in Quetico. This turned out to be a good move.

Our trip up from Houston was a bit different this year – airfare to Duluth was outrageous ($1000+ each) so we flew into Minn./St. Paul and drove up from there. The added car mileage was not a problem – the only issue was that Southwest lost one of our checked boxes. Fortunately, as has been our routine, I sent the important fishing gear up to the outfitter via UPS a few weeks before.

While driving up on the Gunflint Trail, we saw our first moose of the trip. It bolted out of the woods in front of us and starting running away from us down the road at about 20 mph. It is amazing that these huge animals can move that fast.

We arrived at Seagull Outfitters at about 6 p.m. and had our pre-trip briefing. Again, Deb and her crew did an excellent job and I highly recommend using Seagull if your departure point is near the end of the Gunflint Trail.

After the briefing, the time was getting late so instead of eating dinner at our usual spot (TrailCenter) we ate at the Red Paddle Bistro in the Gunflint Lodge. The food and views were great – we had the Walleye shore lunch and would definitely eat there again.

Our first day (Friday, June 17) began with perfect weather. In fact, the staff at Seagull commented that the conditions were the calmest they had seen this year.

We knew, from previous year’s weather, that we needed to appreciate it while it lasted. Unfortunately, it would only last one day.

We had the first tow out to Hook Island.

Everything went smoothly as we loaded our canoe and took off on our journey. We would eventually cover over 100 miles through 18 portages. This year we used a Boundary Waters Kevlar canoe, which provided room and stability without sacrificing too much speed.

We reached Janice at the Border Customs Station at 8:15 a.m. We had our normal lengthy visit with her – she is quite a lady.

She told us that, over the years, someone had died at each of the falls along the way. I also knew that 2 people had also died in the area within the last month, although they were not in Quetico itself. We knew to be careful near the falls and on the trails, but we did have a satellite phone along in case there was any trouble.

We left the station and shortly arrived at the first portage, Silver Falls. By this time, the air temperature was quite warm (mid-70s) and our layers of clothing were gradually being shed. The water levels appeared to be close to normal for this time of year. The bugs would not be bad during this trip, perhaps in part because of our use of Permethrin and Ultrathon.

After portaging over Silver Falls, we began our trip on Saganagons Lake towards Deadman’s portage. I am not quite sure why this portage merits the name, since it is one of the easier portages that we encountered. Starting with this portage, all of the rest of the journey would be covering new territory for us.

Interestingly, we encountered several parties on the way into Quetico, but none on the return journey. All of the falls along the Falls Chain are beautiful. I had decided that we would not fish the falls on the way in, since I wanted to make sure we made good time and reached a good camp site on Kawnipi by mid-day on the second day. We would have time to fish the falls on the way out. This plan worked out well for us.

We had our second moose experience shortly after Deadman’s portage, encountering a moose and its two young calves.

We began the Falls Chain at about 1 p.m. Those portages made for a grueling afternoon.

We double portaged, as usual. Compared to Silver Falls, these trails are generally a bit shorter but much tighter and with more terrain changes. But the fantastic views made it (mostly) worthwhile:

Four Falls portage

Bald Rock Falls portage

Little Falls portage

Koko Falls portage

Canyon Falls portage

By the end of the Canyon Falls portage, I was dead tired and the time was late (6 p.m.), so we made camp on Kenny Lake for the night. We could have pushed through the last portage and camped in Kawnipi, but I knew that I did not want to camp at the south end of Kawnipi, so there was not much to be gained by pushing ourselves. The campsite is a highly recommended 5 star campsite on the right side of Kenny Lake right after Canyon Falls. In fact, all 3 camps on this trip were excellent 5 star camps which I had identified prior to the trip through internet research, and we were fortunate that each site was vacant for us. We fishing for a short time on Kenny Lake without much success.

The next morning was a bit windy and somewhat overcast, but still fine for travel. We woke up relatively late (7:00 a.m.) after our difficult prior day and broke camp by 8 a.m. The final portage to Kawnipi, over Kennebas Falls,was more difficult than it would be on the way back, because we took the longer, more cautious route to avoid putting in at areas of higher current. In retrospect, I think that the longer portage is actually riskier than putting in at the higher current area, at least at this time of year.

Our trip up through Kawnipi went quickly and we arrived at our Kawa Bay campsite at lunchtime. Again, the campsite was excellent, with a good canoe landing, excellent views and fishing areas, an established fire ring, and some access to breeze in most directions.

Of course, little did we know at the time that the fire ring would not be of much use when everything is soaked. The camp is in the easternmost reach of the Kawa Bay area which had not been burned in the 1995 fire ( The vegetation and trail wear patterns of the camp were interesting - it was obvious that the camp is rarely used today, but there were many well established, worn trails throughout the area around the camp indicating that the camp had likely been used heavily many years ago by larger groups.

We spent the rest of our time (4 nights) at this base camp on Kawnipi. It was a great spot to launch fishing expeditions in any direction. The rain began during the afternoon of this second day and was fairly constant during the reminder of the trip. The rain, combined with a steady wind (generally 20 mph, but gusting to 40 mph on the fifth day) and falling temperatures (highs in the mid-50s for the last half of the trip) made for very challenging conditions. Fortunately, we had enough water proof clothing in enough layers that it was fairly tolerable for the most part. But by the end of our trip, all of our gear was wet and we would be eager to get back to civilization.

Fishing was great for the first half of our time on Kawnipi.

We fished primarily using four methods:

Jigs (with spinners and gulp leeches)

Sluggo soft bait lure (imitation minnow)

Rapalas (all kinds)


To our surprise, the spoons were the most productive, catching northern (of course), but also smallmouth and walleye (although jigs were best for focusing on walleye). This trip was unique for us in the number of large smallmouth which we caught consistently and frequently (sometimes one a cast). In fact, almost all of the smallmouth we caught were at least 18 inches or longer: (see video at

The fish were eager to bite and in fact many would bite when the lures were very close to the canoe. I caught a northern while my rod was dangling the lure over the side of the canoe (almost losing the rod in the process). My son had a northern go after his lure when just as it had been retrieving to his rod tip, consuming both the lure and the rod tip.

The most interesting experience of our trip was our experience with bald eagles in Kawa Bay.

Two episodes stood out in particular –

1. Whenever the eagles were nearby and we would have a fish on, they would swoop close to our canoe as if they were looking for a fish handout. The first time they did this, it was quite a surprise (see video at

One time, the bald eagle flew so close that his wing banged against my son’s rod tip. We tried to placate the eagles by tossing a released fish their way, but they missed the fish each time (see video at

Interesting, this loon replicated the eagle’s behavior by repeatedly circling our canoe under water in a tight circle within arm’s reach. Again, it seemed to be asking for a fish handout.

2. The second interesting eagle incident was when we spotted a mother duck taking her duckling out for a swim. All of a sudden, the bald eagle attacked the ducks repeatedly. It was quite a scene, with the eagle in the water going after the ducklings while the brave mother tried to attack the eagle in return. Although the eagle had the obvious advantage in this fight, it wasn’t clear to use whether it was ever successful in grabbing a duckling.

We took a trip up to the end of Kawa Bay to the old Indian encampment and the Wawiag River. The weather was horrible and the fishing was only fair (some walleyes at the river mouth), but the history of the area made it worthwhile.

As the week progressed and the weather deteriorated, so did the fishing. We caught a fair number of smallmouth, walleye and northern the last 3 days but nothing spectacular. The drift sock was worth its weight in gold, as we were able to fish just about any place any time as long as it was deployed.

We had a number of hardware failure during this trip – the depthfinder stopped workimg, one rod tip broke and one reel broke, but it never affected us very much since we had brought spare rods and reels.

We traveled back in the rain on the last two days. We fished the falls and caught smallmouth and walleye, although not nearly as large of fish as we had caught on Kawnipi. But, it was fun to be fishing in that scenic area.

We stayed at the first island camp north of Deadman’s portage, and again it is a five star camp with everything that one would want in a campsite.

The final day we travelled in one more day of rainy conditions. We had the privilege of sharing the ride back from Hook Island with Wallidave and his son.

Reflecting on the trip, a few thoughts:

- The Falls Chain area is beautiful and something that each Quetico visitor should experience at least once. However, the portages are not easy and don’t underestimate the physical difficulty of traversing 18 portages in a short time. Although I am close to 50 years old, I am in good shape and this trip was all that I could handle.

- The fishing on Kawnipi was great, as well as the solitude. All things considered, though, I am not sure if I will be returning again to Kawnipi, simply because of the success we have had in other Quetico areas which are much more easily accessed.

- The drift sock was a critical item to have in the wind.

- The big sponge we brought this year for the first time worked great for keeping the boat dry.

- Bringing a spare rod and reel, and more Rapalas than you think you need, is always a good idea.

- Having multiple sets of waterproof clothing (and no cotton clothing) is a must.

- A depthfinder is not critical once you have the hang of the typical lake topography in Quetico.

- Bringing a spare disposable underwater camera was useful in the wet conditions.

- Whoever invented the Bungee Bob should be given a special award.

As usual, the best part of the trip was the time spent with my son and it is great to see his growth over the past four years into someone who is easily now able to do this on his own (although hopefully I can continue to tag along for a few more years).