Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Living The Dream
by maxxbhp

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/20/2011
Entry & Exit Point: Saganaga Lake (EP 55)
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
I need to be very clear about something. This experience was an absolute joy, it was everything I hoped, and more. I say that because I have to tell this story the way it happened or it's not going to work. As you all know, a successful trip doesn't consist of uninterupted bliss, there's a snag here and there along the trail. Those are part of the trip, too, and a few mishaps can become a comedy of errors, kinda helps out the story.
June 20, 2011 was a Monday. We had driven roughly 1200 miles from just south of Memphis, Tennessee, to just north of where you can’t tune in a radio station anymore. Reality had slowly begun to creep in early the previous day, when the truck thermometer displayed 44 degrees in northern Wisconsin at 9 A.M. It was probably 81 in Walls, Mississippi, but that was sort of the point. We were here, the BW, it was real, and for the first time in 30 years it wasn’t something I was “going to do some day”. It was done, and it was today. We had chosen Voyageur Canoe Outfitters to help us with a boat and some food. The owners, Mike and Sue Prom, are typical Midwesterners, meaning they believe you come into this world with nothing and if you want something, you need to get up off your butt and get out there and hustle it up. Their property is divided by the Seagull River, several of the bunkhouses are on the other side, so you actually canoe to breakfast on your departure day. I’m going to guess that’s a pretty neat experience if it’s not 48 and raining, but that would be pure speculation on my part. We had some pancakes while the young, tough guys at the dock loaded our stuff into the towboat. We backed away from the dock and eased north by northeast, young Eric skillfully avoiding the rocky bottom at times. I think the “Entry Point 55” sign blew away the last of the fog in my mind, I took a picture. As mundane as it was to some, it was a milestone for me.

The short ride across Saganaga wasn’t particularly eventful, but that was fine. To the uninitiated map dreamer, Sag is sort of the Superior of the BW and you’re the Edmund Fitzgerald. It just looks like a place where you could get yourself into some trouble. There was a moderate east wind that day and about a one foot chop on the lake. That becomes a little more of an issue when you unload at American Point. The waves were trapping against the point, the towboat guy was struggling to control the boat and try to help US at the same time, we finally got our gear out, helped get the towboat off the rocks, carried everything to the sheltered side, and shortly made our first paddle strokes. From here, “Plan A” was to paddle west Sag to Swamp and Ottertrack, then down to Knife. We would base camp on Amoeber, loop around Thunder Point, fish, and gradually work our way into South Knife, to Hanson, Ester, then back the way we came in. We would paddle Sag the last day. Right here is where I’d like to offer my first advice to BW rookies. Have SEVERAL plans. Fortunately I was about 4 deep in the plan department, but we still went off the script a little. Back to the story, almost immediately I made a really stupid decision. We’re paddling along, the maps are in the daypack, which is behind my seat, and I don’t really feel like retrieving them, so I just turn on the gps. I mean, the first portage is right there at the end of Sag, you can’t miss it, why bother with those maps? Here’s an interesting fact about handheld gps units. They will guide you toward the coordinates that YOU entered, they don’t have any friggin’ clue where you WANT to go, nor do they care. I’m a construction field engineer, there’s no excuse for this, but somehow I had a bad point entered for Swamp portage. We ended up at a campsite next to a little reed flat that borders Zephyr. Well NOW I get out the maps, but I haven’t caught on to the fact that the gps is totally out in left field, so I tried to coordinate the map in this same area, and it just didn’t work at all. We pissed away about an hour and a half with this idiocy, and I became quite frustrated. I gave it my best effort and we paddled to a camp site on a point, but I was still basically lost. Studying the maps at that camp, I truly believe the Lord God said to me, “Hey dummy, there’s a camp on this point, there’s a narrow spot and a camp on the other point. There’s a really weird shaped cove to the right, I have 7 billion of you idiots to look after, I gotta go.” The portage was about 100 yards ahead and I had learned my first BW lesson, take nothing for granted. KNOW what you’re doing and where you’re going at all times.

By now it had started to rain again, so we crossed the Monument Portage without taking the usual tourist photos, knowing we’d come back through here again anyway. My son learned HIS first BW lesson here. Just because you can pick something up doesn’t mean you can carry it a half mile. That’s probably the way the 1 ½ portage idea came about, but if not it sure worked for him. We very quickly learned the best portage “system”, who got what and when. I highly recommend other newbies do that ASAP, organization will maximize your quality time and just generally make things easier. We reloaded in Ottertrack and soon realized that 10 mph east wind was a very good friend. You put a cockstrong 16 year old in the bow of a MN II with a good tailwind and you can do some amazing things. By the time we got to Knife, the rain had stopped and we were able to do some loafing and video at the portage. That’s a very scenic area, the little cascade between the two lakes and the solid rock landing, it sort of reinforces why you came here. Actually it’s a shame this is a portage, it would make an incredible camp. As we loaded, the rain came back and I put the Gopro on my head to film the paddle down to Amoeber. In my original plan, I was going to check out the last two camps on Knife just before the Amoeber portage to see if they were occupied, just in case the 2 on Amoeber were also occupied, we would come back down the hill and stay there. Well, scrap that plan, both were full. We got to the Amoeber portage about 4 PM, by now we were quite tired and really excited about getting to our camp. The portage into Amoeber is pretty short, if it wasn’t no one would ever go in there. It’s steep, and slick, and rocky, and it twists and turns, yayayayayaya etc. Seriously, it’s tough but short. When we reloaded in Amoeber, I almost immediately saw a Timberline pitched on the farthest site, the one I wanted. Oh well, we’ll go to the island site, except the island site is occupied, too. Honestly, this was a crusher, I was left with the following choices, none of which were particularly attractive to me. Go down the hill into the bays behind Thunder Point and hunt for a site, or go into Topaz and Cherry. At this point it is seriously raining, we need to resort to drastic measures, so I pick Topaz. In retrospect I think it was the wrong move, but it was the SAFE move, and I’m gonna stick with that story. The portage from Amoeber to Topaz is just sort of in the way, there’s nothing to it. Right about now all I cared about was seeing that camp empty. I think I got butterflies as we approached the island, but it was there for the taking. The sad thing about the Topaz camp is, with only a couple of minor modifications, it would actually be very nice. The problem with that assessment is, the “modifications” would involve trees growing to maturity and about a dump truck full of granite finding somewhere else to live. It’s liveable but far from ideal. The only tarp option is in a clump of small trees 30 feet from the fire. There’s actually ONE pretty good tent pad, and there’s a total of zero other realistic tent locations. I had to get creative with the bear tree, but thanks to some people I met a while back I had some good rigging and was able to pull it off with minor difficulty. The latrine has a video quality view of the lake, and guess what that means. The lake has the same quality view of YOU on the toilet. Then again it’s not like you’re in the Chicago bus station, very few people in this area. Despite its shortcomings, this camp sleeps quite well, lots of Loon music.

We woke up Tuesday morning knowing we needed to move but without a comprehensive plan. As it turns out that wasn’t as big an error as it could have been, because by 8 AM the wind was up around 30 mph, and it blew all day. We sat tight, rested, ate, tried to fish from shore and actually caught some little smallies. By mid afternoon the weather radio was predicting large thunderstorms overnight and into Wednesday, so I put up the 2nd tarp over the tent to give us dry spots to get in and out. It worked pretty well, Butthead would have been proud. Evening rolled around, I tried to get some Loon calls on my camcorder, but of course they would raise hell until I turned on the camera, then shut up until I turned it off, at which time the cycle would start anew. We brought a card game called Quiddler, the cards contain letters and combinations of letters and the idea is to make words with your hand. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much. Wes and I played cards until late Tuesday night, then slept like babies through the storm. I was told by some guys at a portage later that trees were blown down wherever they were. I can believe that, it was pretty intense. Whatever happened that night, I wish I could bottle it, because we woke up about 10:30 Wednesday morning. I haven’t slept that late since I was 17. The sleep was nice, we probably needed it, but it basically killed any attempt to move the camp that day. It was still raining, and at best it would have been noon before we could get moving. We suited up and tried some fishing, caught a few more little smallies, but the wind was still bad and we were limited to fishing sheltered areas where we could handle the boat. We knew the return on these fishing expeditions would be limited, but it was something to do and it’s not like we had somewhere else we had to be at that time. Wednesday evening we had a council meeting and decided that, no matter the weather, if we didn’t fear for our lives, we would move Thursday morning. Before bed we packed everything that could be packed, and consigned ourselves to the fact that everything else would be wet, hard to pack, and heavy, but that’s just the way it would have to be.

Thursday morning arrived, still raining, but the rain actually provided some motivation. It was time to leave here. The wind had turned mostly out of the north and was down under 10 mph, so we felt fairly comfortable in the boat. Back across Topaz, into Amoeber and across to the west portage. That portage, FROM Amoeber, isn’t bad at all. It’s only about 80 yards to the ridge, then you just have to keep your feet under you and coast down the hill. I put the Gopro on my head and filmed it, with the pack, not the boat. I can see that it might not be so leisurely from the other side. Actually this is pretty easy travelling in this area, shallow sandy landings on both sides of this bay, and the portage on the other side, into South Knife, isn’t eventful at all. I think it’s 50 rods, not much elevation change, the problem is these two portages are close together, you barely get packed before you’re unpacking again. Another newbie note, number of portages is more relevant than length, and elevation is double both of those put together. Anyway, we caught another good wind on South Knife, not a true tailwind but close enough to make some time, had lunch at camp 2039 (I had to look that up), which is one of 2 on a little sheltered cove. It’s a beautiful spot, not so good as a camp. Skeeters were the worst we’d seen so far, tarp options are pretty limited, a couple of really mediocre tent pads. It’s too bad, it’s a really big camp sheltered from almost any kind of weather, it would be a great family site. We didn’t look at the other site but even if it’s a lot better you’re still going to have the bug problem. From here we paddled down to the Hanson portage and took the camp there. It was only about 11:30 AM, but here’s what was in my head at the time. There’s a fairly athletic portage coming up, I know there’s 9 sites on Hanson and Ester, but I also know they’re fairly popular, and most people are hunkered down in this weather. From here we can still easily paddle back to American Point in a day, so go with the bird in the hand. This turned out to be a pretty decent little camp. You could hang tarps all day if you wanted to, good spot for one tent, fairly easy access, fire grate right on the water. Yes it’s right on top of a portage, but we only saw one boat in two days. That’s probably not typical given the location, but we got lucky. By Thursday afternoon the rain had slacked up to a point where we felt comfortable “clotheslining”. We drug out all our wet crap and hung it all over the site. That didn’t exactly beautify the neighborhood but it had to be done. The one couple we saw while we were here asked if we had turned over, I thought that was pretty funny. It was actually funnier than that, because the guy asked “…you guys get wet?”, and I didn’t catch on to the phrase right away. I thought “well duh, bubba, where the hell YOU been?” They were a very nice couple, maybe a little older than me, made you think they might be college professors. Very nice gear, obviously not their first trip. Another humorous tidbit, Wes didn’t understand day tripping yet. He was in awe of the fact that they could survive with just a little pack and a satchel. No son, somewhere they have just as much junk as we have, minus the stuff I should have left at home, and WILL next time. They rejoined their trip as we continued to settle into our gradually drying new home. I put up one tarp at the fire and another off to the side, I called it the tool shed. I put all the gear under this extra tarp to keep it out from under our feet, worked pretty well. It was still too windy for the fly rod but we fished around the cove with crankbaits, caught a few smallies, and I noticed something disturbing. The fish were on beds, the ones we were catching weren’t “biting”, they were defending their nest. In my experience, bass on beds don’t really actively feed, so that put a huge damper on my plan to catch smallmouth on the fly rod. Nevertheless, things were generally changing for the better, the rain was about to blow out and we had a really good feeling about the overall experience so far.

Friday was definitely a new day. At 6 AM I saw the sun for the first time in several days, the wind was light and the cove was like glass, so I wanted to try the fly rod anyway. Wes was still asleep and I decided to solo the MN II, and may I say THAT is a pretty ridiculous concept. The only thing I can think of that could possibly be worse would be trying to FLY CAST solo in a MN II. That situation would soon rectify itself, because on my third full cast, about 16 inches of the end of my fly rod just broke off for no apparent reason. All I could do was chuckle, I mean so far every friggin’ plan had basically taken a dump on my head, then kind of smeared it around, but I wasn’t mad about it. In fact I realized how lucky I was to be here at all, and if I was offered a deal and the terms were that I could come here as often as liked, but it would always be mostly rainy with crappy luck, or never come back, I’d take it without hesitation. Golfers say a bad day on the course is better than a good day somewhere else, well in the BW you can add an exponent to that. So I spin and wobble back to the camp and work on a new plan. After Wes woke up we had our pancakes and decided to paddle back up South Knife and fish a little. We worked around the point of our cove then to another cove where there is another camp. Now THAT camp has some potential. Not great tent pads, several good tarp options, not buggy and a great view. I probably should have gotten it instead of the one we had, it’s probably less than a half mile from where we were. The only thing I didn’t like was a large animal bone at the edge of the woods, but in reality, whatever left that bone didn’t live at that camp, it just happened to pass through there at some point. I didn’t check out the latrine here but everything else seemed pretty nice. The landings aren’t what you’d hope for but sometimes you just have to get over stuff like that. We returned from this excursion and hiked the Hanson portage, camcorder in hand. Footloose and empty handed that’s not at all a strenuous hike, very nice. I would suggest this if you’re in the area, lots of unique scenery, just a very relaxing walk. Also, if you’re not familiar with the landing on the Hanson side, it’s different, not a bad idea to check it out before you make the portage. Along the way there was an overturned tree beside the path, which isn’t exactly rare around here. As we got to the root ball, a grouse busted out of there and scared both of us damn near to death. The little devil only flew about 10 feet, but that was 9 more than it took to scare ME. Of course it’s on video, and we’ll be laughing about that for quite some time. In the mean time, the camp and all our gear had dried out. I think it was 83 degrees at one point, got my feet sunburned wearing flip flops in the boat. The Twins had a 7:10 game that evening and we were determined to listen. The problem with that was that we weren’t exactly in downtown Ely. We figured out that we could place the antenna against the aluminum paddle handle and get perfect reception, but only in certain configurations that weren’t at all conducive to relaxation. Finally, we put the paddle on top of the tarp pointed in the right direction and laid the radio beside. Game on, and then the Twins lost 4-3. That figures. In any case it’s going to be hard to top that moment, sunset on the lake, the fire, ballgame on the radio, Loons, it’s not something you get to do every day.

Saturday was moving day. Sunday would be our paddle out day and we needed to be in a much better position to try to cross Sag early in the day, theoretically before the wind got up. We packed up the South Knife camp and waded over to the previously scouted portage. When that grouse scared us out of about 10 IQ points we were discussing how we were going to do this, and the plan was to “double-half” portage everything to the top of the falls, then double it to the Hanson landing, and I think that’s the prudent thing to do here for the masses. I know there’s that guy out there that’s just going to pick up everything and walk it. 25 years ago I’d have done that myself, not today. The system worked well, and we dealt with the weird landing on Hanson. The weather had gotten semi-ugly again, but no real rain, just cloudy with a south wind. The clouds cleared out by mid morning and overall it was a nice day. Hanson/Ester is a really nice paddle, but as I had previously suspected, there were quite a few campers in there. There WERE available sites but I stick by the decision we made on South Knife. On Ester I decided to troll a big willow leaf spinnerbait and caught the strongest smallmouth bass in the world. At first I thought I was hung up, then when I realized it was a fish I just knew it had to be a pretty nice pike. He never jumped but he did boil the top a couple of times, and I could see that the size and shape were all wrong. That devil was probably 2 pounds and I would have guessed 7 before I got a good look at him. Took the picture and turned him back to fight another day, and hopefully infuse the gene pool. The portage from Ester to Ottertrack is one that will “weed out the suckers”. From Ester it’s really not that bad, a short, very steep climb at the onset, then a long downhill with a couple of mudholes. Not unlike west Amoeber, from the other side it’s a different animal, but I can see why you’d go this way. Even if you paddle Sag, you can be in Ester/Hanson in a short day, base camp, then paddle out in a day. Anyway, we portaged back into Ottertrack and headed toward the monuments. The weather was good by now, and I was going to get my tourist photos today. To this point we’d seen some campers at their camps, 3 canoes travelling together, and the scholarly couple at the Hanson portage, that’s it. That all changed pretty quickly. Near the monuments we passed 5 boats coming in and waited while a group of 2 boats ahead of us portaged out. Later on in west Sag we ran into the fishing guys and the lay around camp guys, maybe more on this later. We photo’d the monuments per requirements, each monument both sides, and one each of ME/Canada, Wes/US, and vice versa. Wes was still having a good time, but I could tell he had probably already maximized his experience. His input had gone from “it doesn’t matter to me” to “let’s go as far as we can”. We ate lunch at a nice camp on west Sag, really good fire grate seating arrangement. The squirrels at this site must get fed regularly, you won’t be there long before they show up. Before we left this camp we decided on a minimum stopping point, and then we would take the next available camp after that. This seems to be a recurring theme, but after we passed our line of no return, every camp near American Point was occupied. I knew there were 8 or 9 on the islands less than 2 miles away, so that’s where we headed. Sag was a bit testy, about a foot chop and a headwind, we stayed reasonably close to shore and slogged along. You could see from half a mile away that the south camp on Englishman Island was taken, so we cut to the north side, hoping for the best but knowing there were 5 or 6 more sites on Long Island, too. We took the north Englishman site, although the landing was probably the worst I’d seen so far. You could tell that the people who maintain things were a lot less interested in this camp than the camps “in-country”. There were 2 logs back to back near the fire grate, and that was about it. I didn’t bother with a tarp, the weather forecast was good and there really wasn’t a good way to do it even if I wanted to. Plus, I knew we needed to get out of there fairly early, less packing would be a good thing. I understand that island’s been there about 20,000 years, but I’m still trying to figure out how those squirrels got out there. Not only that, but at least TWO of them had to get there in order to maintain a presence. Made me wonder what else was out there, it’s a small island. We shot a bunch of pictures and video here. The site has serious shortcomings as a camp, but lots of great views and plenty of firewood, all in all not a bad stopover. I lashed the camcorder to a tree and just let it run for a while, setting sun over the fire, camp activity, it was pretty neat. That evening Sag calmed down quite a bit, and really fast, I wouldn’t have believed a lake that size could do that. We had our last BW supper, I finished off my Everclear and punch, and we settled in for our last night in the tent.

Sunday morning Sag was like one of those beer mirrors you see in bars. You knew it was a lake, but all the world around was reflecting in it, trees, sky, everything. Not a ripple to be seen, I think even the fish understood how beautiful it was and refused to break the surface. It was really encouraging to me, because I’d sort of dreaded this moment. Well, that shit lasted about an hour, and then the south wind started to blow. We had gone over our island hopping strategy before we left camp, but pretty quickly we became a rookie running back and the lake was the Ravens’ defense. You’ve probably been there, you need to go HERE, but HERE is too broadside to the wind, so you find a quarter to the wind that you can live with, go where it lets you go and regroup. It very quickly became obvious that this wasn’t just inconvenient, it was hot dam dangerous. The only thing I could think of was to take what the wind would give us, fight our way to the south shore and just follow along. That strategy worked well until we got into the Clark Island area. This little chess game with Mother had blown us a little farther east than I had planned. We were pulling the paddles so hard that there had been no time for a map check, so I wasn’t 100 percent sure exactly where we were. We found a small sheltered cove and tried to regroup. From our position, it was really hard to tell what was what. All I knew was we were in one of 2 places, and it made a big difference which one we were in. NOW the gps sort of redeemed itself. I had a point for the outfitter and a point for Clark Island. I ran one, sketched it on the map, then did the same with the other, sort of like the old LORAN system, and figured out we were exactly in the arm of Sag that we needed to be in. That was good news and bad news. The good news, all we had to do was paddle a half mile and we’re technically off Sag, alive. The bad news, you guessed it. Straight into the wind, which was now somewhere in the 25-30 range. Wes tried hard to keep us straight, but as you guys are painfully aware, in this kind of wind ONE stroke is critical. By the time you make the switch, you’re 30 degrees off and fighting to get it back on line, then you’re back in the same situation but in the opposite direction. Add to this the fact that this is an area where a lot of motorboat traffic originates, let’s just say it’ll keep you interested. To be fair, most of the motor guys were cool, but there’s always that DH that either doesn’t care or doesn’t understand how to minimize the wake of a boat. So now you’re faced with, “I have 2 foot whitecaps straight ahead and a 2 foot wake coming in from the left, which one am I worried about most?” The two redeeming qualities of a boat wake are that it’s rhythmic, and it doesn’t last long, you can deal with it. Those whitecaps are soulless demons from the darkest pit of hell, you never take your eyes off them, you never know what they’re going to do. We pulled paddles as hard as we could for about an hour. Every time I looked at the front of that boat, I thanked God for those 2 sixteen year old shoulders. I was burning pretty badly, but I knew if I could just pull my weight, we’d get out of this. Once we got off Sag, very little changed except the scenery. When we finally turned into the river, we got a little bit of a break from the wind, it broke from 30 to about 20. I asked Wes if he’d like to take a break up ahead in a cove, he said he wanted to get this over with. Probably the right thing to do at the time. We got back to the outfitter and they crossed us off the “look for after 5:30 PM” list. Then we got our gear organized and headed for the shower. To me, the shower represents the point at which you lose any entitlement that you may have felt before this trip. A shower, water coming out the end of a pipe, but you realize you’re NOT entitled to this, it’s a blessing of sorts that we take for granted in our daily lives, but not here, not now. I had reserved another bunkhouse for the night of our arrival back at the outfitter, but I had planned on coming in about 3 hours later than we actually did. It was around noon, we were all checked in and our canoe to cross the river waited at the dock. Wes and I went down the hill to the Trail Center to get some food. At the Trail Center, about 15 people waited outside to get a table. We looked at each other, and I said “How about we just drive as far as we can and try to find a room somewhere in Wisconsin.” It actually happened, it was finally real, but now it was time to let it go, quietly. The memories are ours forever.