Mugwump PMA -- A Fine & Pleasant Misery
by Rob Johnson
Let me start by saying that the way things ended up was not a result of “lack of planning”. We spent more time than we should have pouring over maps, old and new satellite images, and message boards. To say this trip was poorly planned would not be fair…to say it was ill conceived however, might be closer to the truth.
We were pumped for this trip. The best evidence of this was when Heavy Canoe (HC) and I called each other close to our departure date and we both should have been at work. “Guess where I am right now? I’m at Gander Mountain”. “SO AM I”, came the response.
It was to be our last great adventure trip for several years. Starting next year, both of us committed to bringing our young kids on trips = the trips would have to be easier. So we purposefully picked a tough trip. We wanted to test our limits…and we did.
HC & I decided to meet up at my brother-in-law’s property outside of Black River Falls Friday night. It was a convenient location where we could put up a tent then get an early start on Saturday for our trek up to the Gunflint Trail. On his way there HC was so caught up in his thoughts of the trip that he missed a turn and ended up arriving several hours later than planned in Black River. His late arrival couldn’t subdue our enthusiasm. We still talked for hours drinking cheap cold beer even though it was getting late.
DAY ONE -- SATURDAY -- THE TRIP NORTH
Despite being up late we were still up early, eager to get started. It wasn’t until we were at Perkins having breakfast that we realized just how early…seems our 40+ year old eyes had mistaken 5:30AM as 6:30. Heck, we now had even more time to make it to our outfitters (Tuscarora) on Round Lake.
It was actually quite enjoyable taking our time heading north. HC’s air conditioning was out but it was a nice enough day that it really didn’t matter. We could have taken my truck but my “Check Engine” light was on and we decided it was better to have an engine that worked than an air conditioner.
We made good use of the extra time. We stopped at all those places you’ve wanted to stop at but had to pass by because you needed to get to the Bdub. HC had been chatting with someone on the message boards who had a canoe shop in Two Harbors so we stopped there. We stopped at Betty’s Pies but it was too busy for us so we left. We ate the cookie I had won that morning at Perkins playing the drop-a- quarter-in-the-water-for-charity game.
We stopped at Split Rock, in spite of the crowds and went to explore the falls. It was good we stopped at there on the way up because on the way back it, along with every other state park, was closed due to the Minnesota shutdown.
We lost a little bit of time when we hit the washed out construction zone between Split Rock Falls and Silver Bay. We pushed through on the highway instead of the detour (a recommendation from our stops in Two Harbors). It was slow and muddy but it really wasn’t all that bad.
We made it to Grand Marais around 3:00. We had an early dinner at Sven & Ollie’s and picked up bait at that place just up the street from there. They guaranteed that the leeches would catch fish or die trying. In our case, it turned out that the majority of the leeches would never get to swim in a Bdub lake even though we hauled them for miles.
When we pulled into Tuscarora Lodge & Outfitters it was around 5:00. We had plenty of time to check in, watch the video, and get our permits & licenses. The outfitter tried to talk us into an aluminum canoe because of where we were headed but it was for that very reason that we insisted on a lightweight Kevlar.
We started to fill our packs. I had brought a bathroom scale along to help us with our decisions. It told us we were too heavy but we didn’t want to hear that so we ignored this early indication of what was headed our way.
We were packed before sundown. We headed to the docks to enter some GPS points and watch the sun set on a beautiful day. This was sure to be a GREAT trip.
DAY TWO -- SUNDAY -- WELCOME TO THE BWCAW or PLANNING MEETS REALITY
We were up at dawn = 5:00 and on the lake by 6:00. We chose to forgo the usual French Toast breakfast (served at 7:00) in order to get the early start on what was planned to be a VERY long day. As we paddled across our first lake we saw our first bald eagle.
Here was the plan: Round - West Round - Edith - Brandt - Gotter - Flying - Green - Bat - Gillis - French - Peter - Gabimichigami - Agamok = 11 ½ miles of portaging and paddling - a brief stop at Mueller Falls - then 2 ½ miles of the Kekekabic trail in order to get to Travois Lake in the northeast corner of the Mugwump PMA. By starting at 6:00 AM we had hoped to make Travois by 6:00 or 7:00 PM. By our calculations, that included 3 hours for the Kek trail leg.
Most of the trails were muddy based on all the rain the previous week. Whoever carried the canoe seemed to be the favorite food for mosquitoes. You would set the canoe down on the other end of the portage and a cloud of mosquitoes would rise up from the hull.
For portaging we arranged our packs so that we had options: 1) One portion was the canoe + paddles & fishing poles = 50 pounds 2) One portion was “The Big Easy” = a Granite Gear Superior One = 50+ pounds but was easy to carry given the waist belt and all the adjustments 3) The food pack = a cardboard box inside of a perfectly fitting pack = 30 pounds give or take 4) An army duffle with misc gear approximately 30 pounds
PORTAGE OPTION #1 Double Portage -One person takes the canoe the other takes Big Easy. We then both go back for the lighter packs and carry them forward. -Net distance traveled by each of us = 3 X the portage length
PORTAGE OPTION #2 Single Portage -One person takes the canoe + one of the lighter bags and the other takes Big Easy + the other lighter bag -Net distance traveled by each of us = 1 X the portage length -In our younger days this would have been the option of choice. On this trip…for the first time ever…we did NOT single portage with the canoe even once
PORTAGE OPTION #3 The 1 ½ Portage = so named because it is between the single and the double (BWCA.com) (throughout the report I hope to highlight the ideas we learned on this site that we used successfully) -One person grabs both of the light bags (one back pack and one front pack) and carries them ½ way where he then drops them and goes back for Big Easy. The other person carries the canoe all the way to the end then comes back for the combo pack (this combo pack, at 60 pounds or so, later became known as the Big Bastard). The person who went back for Big Easy then carries it all the way to the end. -Net distance traveled by each of us = 2 X the portage length -We used the 1 ½ a lot on this trip
We were in the Ham Lake and Cavity Lake burns nearly the whole way in. It really is a shame. Some of those lakes would have been very desirable had they not been wiped clean of trees. I particularly liked the layout of Brandt with all the twists and turns to explore. We saw a loon with 2 chicks there. It would have made a great short trek with the kids if there had been a forest for shade and scenery. It was clear that these areas are still decades away from bearing any resemblance to being “forested”.
The portage from Brandt into Gotter had been lengthened to accommodate lower water levels and the mud that occupied what had been lake in previous years.
Only saw 2 other groups on the whole trek in. We passed a solo traveler on the staircase from Gotter into Flying. The other group was a ranger and his summer helper on the portage from Flying into Green. That slowed us down a bit. Even though the Ranger complimented us on the speed at which we had covered distance so far, we had to stop and wait while the Ranger checked our permits and signed off on them.
The Ranger also advised us that the forecast for the day had changed and now included evening showers and high winds. With Gabi to come, the possibility of high winds was not good news.
We had lunch on the portage from French into Peter. We wanted a scenic place but that was a little challenging in the middle of the burn. We opted for the high point of the trail on a big rocky surface with a breeze to keep the bugs at bay. It is a pretty view in its own right. All of the rock formations that would have otherwise been hidden by foliage were clearly visible. We each had 2 water bottles with approximately a liter of water in them each. By the time we hit Peter we were out of water. (BWCA.com) Based on what we had read on this site we felt safe refilling our bottles on Peter without filtering them provided we filled them in deep water. Peter is a big deep lake and showed no beaver sign so we comfortable filling them there. We had to admit…the water tasted really good = better then the stuff that came through the filter.
We got to Gabi and our wind fears came true. While the whitecaps hadn’t quite formed yet it was clear they were coming soon. NOTE: on our last trip into the Bdub we challenged big waves on Saganaga and ended up swamping 2 canoes so we are more than a little sensitive to big waves. Crossing Gabi in a straight line to our portage would not be an option because that would have the canoe going parallel to the big waves. We had to head more to the southwest = more into the wind, then cut back to northeast = down wind. It was a tense time for us. Forward progress slowed as we battled into the wind and added a whole lot of extra distance to the paddle. The exit from Gabi into Agamok was a little hard to find but a good topo GPS helped us to get the right stretch of shore.
The Agamok side of the portage was a completely different story. On that small, narrow lake you barely knew the wind was blowing. That is why it is a little surprising that we got through Gabi without a scratch but then managed to run square into a Volkswagen sized boulder submerged in still water on Agamok. You would have thought we were Rookies hitting a rock like that. Yeah, the skid pad got a work out on that one.
We saw our first of many beaver on Agamok. On this trip we would see lots of moose sign but never see a moose. We would see bear sign but never see a bear. Beaver on the other hand seemed like they were everywhere.
Our plan had been to pull out at the last campsite on Agamok before the portage to Mueller. We figured that surely there would be a trail from the campsite to the Kek trail because that would provide access to Mueller Falls. We found the campsite and went to unload. Our second rookie mistake in the span of 20 minutes = we both looked for footing to unload the packs and neither of us held onto the canoe. That really wasn’t a good idea given that there is a current there drawing all things into the falls. I looked back to see the canoe about 5 feet from shore. That really isn’t that far but it was more than enough to be past the rock ledge we were standing on. In I went. It really didn’t take much to haul it in from 5 feet but I was now wet all the way up to my arm pits.
Having secured the canoe…we investigate the site. There was a trail back to the privy but it did not connect to the Kek trail. We thought about bushwhacking but decided that it would be easier to pick up the trail where it crossed the Agamok to Mueller portage. We wanted to see the falls anyway so we would be passing through that intersection regardless. We found the portage easy enough and hauled all the gear to the intersection.
The trail to the falls went through a campsite that Kek trail hikers must use. There isn’t a place to put a canoe into water but it is relatively close to the sounds and scenery of the falls. The falls was worth the side trip. The bridge gives a nice vantage point and the water fall is through a chute in the rocks forcing the water to flow through in a roar.
Below the falls was a sight that made us wince. Someone had created a “shelter” at the side of the creek. Pine poles had been stripped of branches and bark and used for rafters. Then they had taken great pieces of bark from a large live birch tree and attempted to drape them over the rafters. Finally, they made a fire ring out of rocks right there at the bottom of the falls. The scene was a perfect poster for the OPPOSITE of Leave No Trace.
After spending time with the Ranger, covering twice the water on Gabi, and our little side trip to the falls…it was now 5:30 = close to the time we had hoped to pull into Travois. We went back to the intersection to discuss our options. Did we push on for Travois? We figured we could make it there in 2 to 3 hours. That would mean arriving at 8:00 or so = still light out but not by much. We reversed our trend of making rookie mistakes by making one of the best decisions of the trip. We left the canoe on the Kek Trail then brought the rest of the gear to the hikers campsite on the way to the falls.
It was a nice enough site despite the lack of a lake view. It had a nice flat tent pad and a decent fire pit. HC got busy with dinner while I went to fill the water jug. Without a canoe I was forced to wade into the water at the bottom of the falls and fill up there. Needless to say, that water had to be filtered before use. Dinner that night was red beans & rice with TVP (textured vegetable protein).
While I did the dishes HC did the fishes. He managed to catch a sucker on worms and a small Pike on a spoon. He was fishing in the pool just below the falls.
As dusk began to fall so did the rain. After rising at dawn and the long day of paddling turning in early was the easy choice.
Getting ready to tuck into my sleeping bag I found not one but 2 DEER ticks up near the underwear line. I had been wearing zip-off performance pants all day that had been sprayed with premethrin (BWCA.com)1 week earlier. The one thing premethrin was supposed to protect me from was deer ticks and it had failed. I later found that my canvas cargo pants sprayed with premethrin did a good job of keeping the ticks at bay. The dramatic difference in performance will need to be investigated further.
DAY THREE -- MONDAY -- THE KEK TRAIL AND ONLY THE KEK TRAIL
We awoke to rain. Sleeping in a little, in the hopes that the rain would subside, didn’t work = all it did was get us a later start.
Had oatmeal and coffee with Bailey’s as creamer for breakfast. We were packed and ready to hit the trail at roughly 10:00.
Made one of my biggest mistakes of the trip right here…that’s saying something for this trip. As we were standing there in our gear we discussed the virtues of wearing performance pants vs. rain pants. We both had knee high waterproof boots (BWCA.com) because we knew we would be bushwhacking. Being ever so optimistic about dry weather we went with the performance pants. They may get wet but they would dry out quicker and they would breath better than rain pants. They would also likely hold up better to the tugs of briars and limbs than our rain gear would. Horrible decision. Even when the rain would stop for short periods of time the vegetation which crowded the Kek trail was soaked. Before the end of the day we would be hiking with water ankle deep in our boots. Waterproof boots don’t do you a squat bit of good if they are holding the water in rather than the water out. Think of all the extra weight in every step. In my case, the tops of my boots rubbed against the ultra light fabric of my soaked through pants and they started to chaff. I still have the sores now as I type this. I got so wet that my underwear got soaked and by the end of the day I was painfully chaffed in areas I will never tell my mother about.
And I got off easy…HC’s boots were the pullover type so he needed to wear other shoes inside them. The only other shoes he brought were his water shoes. They simply weren’t made for that kind of hiking. By the end of our trip he had so much duct tape on his feet it looked like he was wearing sandals. It was really a painful ordeal for him.
But all that would be realized at the end of the day and this story still has us at the beginning of the trail, optimistic about our challenge to bushwhack into the Mugwump PMA.
We had hoped to 1 ½ portage most of the Kek trail…doing it in medium sized pieces. But the rough terrain soon made that difficult. We had decided that for the toughest stretches we would double portage. Other than that first stretch…we started double portaging everything.
Ferns covering the trail soaked us as we waded through them. Branches that were out of the way for a hiker, required that a canoe be pushed through. Windfalls required that the canoe be walked through by both of us.
Generally, we are patient people. We have both run marathons and are used to enduring discomfort in the name of progress. The problem was…we weren’t making progress. The GPS showed that after 2 hours of hard work in the rain we had only managed to get the canoe about a mile up the trail. By this point we had hoped to have made it the entire 2 ½ miles. A bit frustrated by the pace we decided to change tactics. It was pretty clear that we were going to have to double portage nearly all of this. So, in an effort to feel better about our progress, we grabbed the 2 light packs (the food pack and the duffle) and decided we would push all the way through to Travois then come back for Big Easy and the canoe. The biggest mistake of the entire trip happened right here…it worked out OK but it could have been bad. By not taking Big Easy we left our water bottles behind. We also left the tent but it was the water that was really stupid.
Off we go with light packs and our pace picks up. The Kek trail takes you to some really neat parts of the BWCAW that you might not see otherwise. At one point you are high above the rest of the area and you can see for miles (when it isn’t raining). There are parts of the trail where it is really difficult to follow. Several times we had to rely on sawed logs and cairns to reassure us that we were headed the right direction. There are also parts of the trail where I found myself saying out loud, “Are you kidding?”. This usually happened when it climbed down a little cliff wall or plunged into a swamp.
The Kek trail is filled with moose sign in the form of droppings. One of the ways we passed the time was by yelling out “Poop Pile” every time we passed a bunch of moose plumbs. We also called out “Boot Spot” every time the trail got so mucky that you were glad you were wearing your boots.
Per the GPS we finally reached the saddle in the topo maps where we thought we could drop into Travois. We had seen the lake previously but it was from the top of a bluff. We couldn’t find a single spot that looked like an easy spot to start the bushwhack into the lake. We knew others had been to the lake so we decided to push forward towards the marsh at the base of Bushwah Lake. That was the lowest point into Travois. If we hadn’t found a trail in be then, that is where we would push through. We finally found the marsh and, much to our delight we also found a trail heading into Travois!
As hard as following the Kek trail had been this was several times harder. It was a path only in the sense that other people had been this way before. It was not a cleared path. You still had to climb over windfalls. The brush was so thick in places you had no choice but to cover your eyes and just push through.
Several times we lost the trail. All you had to do was go a couple of steps the wrong direction and you would lose all signs of a path. At one point, about ½ way to the lake, we were no longer on the trail and the way to the lake included climbing down a rock. We had come this far and we weren’t going to stop now, so down we went. At the bottom of the rock we found the trail again. Apparently, smarter folks than us had found a way that did not involve having to not hang from trees as you slid down the face of a rock with a pack on.
AT LAST…we had made it to Travois Lake! It was now about 2:30 in the afternoon. For those of you keeping track…we had been on the trail for 4 ½ hours. Our canoe was a mile and a half back up the trail. More importantly, so was our water and our tent. Had we been smarter we could have set up camp right then and there and gone back for the rest of the gear the next day. But we weren’t smart so our day of marching still wasn’t over.
I had thought of drinking right from the lake but our entrance to the shore was met by a very unhappy beaver. Several times he/she slapped the water making it clear we weren’t welcome there. Given the threat of Giardia, drinking from the shore here without filtering the water was not an option.
We dropped our packs and decided to explore a bit before resuming our hike. It was clear that the lake was lower than it had been historically. It actually made it easier to walk around the lake because in most places there was a rocky shore to follow. You still had to negotiate the occasional windfall but in this part of the lake others had done the same before us and left clear indications of the easiest way to get through.
Due to the low water, the island in Travois was, in fact, now a peninsula. The connection was a bit boggy but not a problem for guys wearing boots. The island was really pretty nice. The only thing that spooked us a bit was that we found 1 beaver skull and 2 moose skeletons on the island. Wolves were the most obvious explanation. At the far end of the island there was a nice tent pad of tiny blueberry bushes and a spot with a rock bench that would be great for sitting around a small fire. It was an elevated site with nice rock formations all around. This would be our campsite. That decision made, we headed back for the bushwhack trail.
As we walked back we both admitted that we had realized some time ago that the canoe would not be making the trip to Travois. It was crushing to admit that, so neither of us had said it out loud. Knowing what we had hiked to get here it was clear that the canoe had no business on the Kekekabic Trail and stood almost no chance of being pushed through that bushwhack trail. I think it could have been done but it would have required yet another day of hiking. The canoe was still 1 ½ miles up the Kek trail (not including the distance along the bushwhack trail) and the terrain would slow the pace to a crawl. We had reached the point where the effort was not worth the reward. It was now 3:30. So we wouldn’t be hauling the canoe but we did have to go back for Big Easy, our water, and our fishing poles. Now that we had a better idea of what we were up against we were able to make better choices. We took the duffle bag and emptied the contents onto the lake shore. That would allow us to take some of the weight out of Big Easy for the trip back.