Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Maiden Voyage to the BWCA with the Canoe Heads
by HWF85

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/30/2011
Entry & Exit Point: South Kawishiwi River (EP 32)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 9
Trip Introduction:
This was my first ever trip to the BWCA. I hadn't been in a canoe for over 15 years and my camping has been minimal over the past 15 plus years as well. I had a great time with a good group of guys. I was the "newbie" of the group but was welcomed in and shown the ropes.
Recently, September 28th thru October 3rd, I had the opportunity to head up to the BWCA in northern Minnesota with a group of guys from my church, who call their group the Canoe Heads. It would be my maiden voyage to this area and a trip that I had never experienced. Many know that the Boundary Waters for the most part is a paddle only, canoe or kayak, area so anything motorized is very limited. I had not done any type of canoeing in well over 15 years, so there would be some learning involved again. Also, my camping has been very limited since moving out of the house over 10 years ago, so I would be the “newbie” in this department as well. I spent months planning for the trip, gathering information from those experienced in the BW, and making purchases I hoped would keep me comfortable as well as make the trip as enjoyable as possible. Despite the months of planning some last minute items were purchased as I waited to see what the “forecasted” weather would be like. As the trip neared, a wrench was thrown into our plans. It seemed that nature, a lightning strike to be exact, had sparked a fire about 7 miles from where we were planning on camping on our trip. No worries, our area was still open until winds and warm temperatures came into play escalating the fire from a few hundred acres to nearly 10,000 acres. Soon enough, for the safety of those entering the BW, our area was closed off. No worries, we had a backup plan that would suit us well, though there would be more portaging and longer portaging.

Day 1 – Departure Day… Well our day of departure arrived, September 28th. We met up in the church parking lot around 2pm and starting getting our gear in the suburban as well as the snowmobile trailer, converted to a canoe trailer. After our gear was gathered, we started to make our trek eastward. About an hour in to the trip, we started to turn onto Co Hwy 46, off of Co Hwy 44. It was then that our driver, Dave, thought he heard a sound coming from the trailer. We pulled over to inspect and sure enough there was a problem. Upon inspection we found that somehow the lugnuts on the driver side wheel on the trailer had come loose, some wear gone. The holes in the wheel were not oblong from having been bounced around on the road. Not being equipped with much for tools, we could not get the remaining lug nuts off due to the bolts being loose on the backside of the hub. Luckily for us, we had a second vehicle and two people from the group made their way to Two Inlets to get some tools. These were brought back to us and then they were off to get a new wheel & tire, as well as a new hub for the trailer so that we could continue on our way. After spending a good hour on this, we were back on our way to Bemidji to meet up with the final person of our group, John. The remainder of the trip went off without any other issues and we arrived in Ely around 11pm. Unloading what we needed, no one wasted much time taking advantage of the last night being able to sleep in a bed.

Day 2 – Heading to the BW, well maybe not… The day started early for everyone, as we were all anticipating heading into the wilderness for the next five days. Watching the weather channel, quickly turned our excitement into more of a state of reluctance as the low pressure system that was situated over Chicago was going to be bringing showers and wind, on and off for the entire day. The 75 degree temperature we experienced the day before would be around 20 degrees cooler. The strong NW winds would not be in our favor either on our paddle out. We headed to Piragis to get our last canoe for the trip. In talking with Drew and looking at the latest forestry map, we discovered that our original entry point was available but not until Friday. With the rain only coming down harder and the experienced ones in the group feeling it would be better to go to this area as well as stay dry another day, we gave in and chose to protect ourselves from the elements in a more suitable shelter one more night. The forecast for Friday was looking better anyway and the remainder of the trip was looking dry, so it seemed like a logical choice. We found lodging for the evening and even passed some time by knocking down some pins at the Ely bowling alley. This wound up being a way to see who would end up lugging the food packs thru the portages as well.

Day 3 – We are finally heading into the BWCA!!! We woke up and enjoyed a warm breakfast as well as one last hot shower. Stepping out the door, the wind that was almost nonexistent the evening before was now starting to increase out of the north. This would mean a tougher paddle going in, but we would be avoiding the rain we experienced the day before. Stopping in town to buy some bait, which proved to be a bit of a tough task in finding someone selling bulk crawlers, we were off. We arrived at EP 32, South Kawishawi River, around 10 am. We would begin our just under half mile portage to get to where we could begin our paddle into the wilderness. A few double packed portages later and we were loading our gear into the canoes and preparing ourselves for what lay ahead. Coming out of the protected bay, we could see white caps on the river and we all knew we could potentially be in for a long, hard paddle to camp. John quickly rounded up the canoes, talked about potential dangers and that we would need to stick together in case anyone of the canoes got into trouble. As we got thru the first few miles, we battled the wind and the rogue waves that came over the bow of our canoe. Soon enough, the winds would die down to a mere breeze and the paddling got much easier. As we ventured further in, we came across a sign posted on a tree at the tip of an island. We slowed down to inspect the sign and saw a notice, stating “All Campsites and Portages from this point on are CLOSED, effective immediately.” We all gathered to discuss and came to a consensus that the USFS, had not had time to remove the signs yet after opening up the area. Shortly after, we came to our last portage which also had this same notice. Checking for cell phone reception, we called Drew at Piragis to verify that our area indeed was open. The last thing we wanted was a fine from the USFS for trespassing. A confirmation from Drew and we were off on our final leg of the trip, just a little over a mile to our campsite! We arrived at camp and started to unload our gear and get our tents situated on the tent pads. John got lunch ready for us and soon enough, a few of us were off to catch some fish for our evening meal. I was fortunate to be in this group, so Dave and I were off in one canoe, Shawn and Orlan in another and Jeff and Jim were off in the other canoe. We only had around two hours to fish, so we hoped to make the most of our opportunity. Luckily, there were spots close to camp that had done well in the past so we all headed off in different directions to see what would happen. Soon we were wetting a line and waiting for some walleyes to bite on the other end. I had the honors of the first fish, which ended up being a nice smallie. Wrong species but still a good fight! Over the next hour we found mixed results and ended up putting a few walleyes on the stringer as well as a surprise bluegill. The size of the walleyes was on the smaller side, but they would still be good tablefare. Arriving back at camp, we found out that the other canoes had had some luck as well. One nice northern pike and a handful of walleyes would be on the menu this evening. A nice fire and some guitar playing from Rick signaled the end of our evening. This night would prove to be our coldest night, and as we climbed into our sleeping bags this reality was setting in!

Day 4 – A brisk morning with no fire… As the sun rose in the clear morning sky, no one seemed to want to leave the warm confines of the sleeping bags. Jim had brought a thermometer along and it revealed the wake up temperature was around 28 degrees. A breeze coming off the river into camp didn’t help to warm things either. Water was quickly boiled and everyone enjoyed coffee, tea or hot chocolate. It sure felt good to have a warm liquid to get the body temperature rising. Our camp was not ideal for getting warmth from the morning sun, so many of us headed out into the canoes to get out into the sun. Dave and I would be in a canoe again today, and we headed off to another area to see if the walleyes were biting and if there were some larger walleyes lurking below our canoe. It didn’t take long and Dave was putting a few walleyes in the canoe. I would join in on this as well, but not to the extent that Dave was. His orange and black jig seemed to be what the walleyes were keying in on as we were both using the same bait. Some of the other guys in the group had settled in on this area as well and were enjoying some “catching” also. Late morning we headed back to camp and had a hot meal and then headed back out on the river. The afternoon would yield similar results to what the morning had. More fish were caught and kept for the evening meal. Everyone was able to get in on some catching, trying different areas within a mile of our campsite. Again, many of the walleyes were on the smaller side and the bite was not very aggressive either. As Dave put it, “We were flossing a lot of walleyes teeth today.” With the wind still blowing into camp, we had to setup a few tarps as a wind break so that we could enjoy another warm fire. After this was setup, we all enjoyed the warmth of the fire as well as some more hot coffee and hot chocolate. Another night with Rick playing guitar signaled the end of our evening. We all could tell it would be a warmer night than the night before, so the spirits were higher when we all crawled into our sleeping bags.

Day 5 – Is it really October??? We awoke to a much warmer morning temperature wise and the winds were almost nonexistent. Stepping out from the tent and walking down to the gathering area, a glance at the river showed the water looking like glass. Our plan today would be to take a short portage to allow us to fish north of camp for the day. We would gather for a lunch at one of the campsites and then continue fishing the day away. I headed out in the canoe with Jeff today and we quickly made our way thru the portage and were off to do some catching. The short paddle to the portage quickly revealed that we were over dressed for the day ahead. A layer was shed and we continued on. We made our way north near the campsite we would be meeting at later in the day. This paddled also revealed that we still had too many layers on. We stopped near a rock island and were quickly shedding more layers as the sun was warm and the wind was not available to provide comfort. I was down to zip off shorts, a fleece and my MUCK boots (which were also on the warm side, but thank goodness I could roll them down). I hadn’t expected temperatures like this, or did many of the others in our group. After getting more comfortable, we were off to doing some catching. I would have the first few fish in the canoe, a few northern pike that seemed to be the only fish around for a while. It didn’t matter what bait I tried, the northerns seemed to be keying in on whatever I put in the water. Soon enough the rest of the group was visible in the area. In talking with one canoe, they had stopped in an area before portaging and caught a few walleyes. We fished a bit longer and soon enough it was time to meet up for a break and some lunch. The conversation of the group seemed to be how we couldn’t believe how nice the weather was and that the fish really weren’t cooperating up in this area. After enjoying a break and some food, we were all off again and trying our luck at fishing. It wasn’t long and almost everyone was heading south as the fish just weren’t jumping in the boat north of camp. Jeff and I were the last to come thru and found the other 3 canoes all fishing a hole near the portage and were catching some walleyes. Jeff and I continued to paddle and try a few areas closer to camp. Again, northerns proved to be the only fish that was willing to bite the end of our line in our canoe. I ended the day catching a nice, 6-7 lb northern on a husky jerk just off a rock point. We all headed into camp to enjoy some fish again as well as eating up what remained of our food in our food pack, as the motto was “We aren’t packing it out!” We weren’t as eager to start a fire tonight, as the temperature near 80 degrees earlier in the day didn’t really have us in the mood for a fire. As the sun went away, we would soon have flames coming from the fire pit. We enjoyed our last evening together in the wilderness and could even hear the wolves howling off in the distance.

Day 6 – Back to society and a HOT shower! Our final morning in camp had us busy getting things organized, finishing off whatever food we could and packing things away for the paddle out. Around 9:45am, we began our journey out of the wilderness and back into civilization. We had a light breeze to contend with on our paddle back, but it would be no issue to deal with. On one of our portages out, we chose to float our canoes thru the low water as it was an issue getting thru the portage due to the water being so low around the peninsula. This proved to be a better option, than on the way in. We also saw something we didn’t see on the way in, and that would be other persons coming to enjoy the area. The one solo paddler we saw was a ranger, whom we suspected was coming to take down the notices. We also saw another canoe with two men wearing blaze orange, who were heading out to try their hand at shooting a moose. The last portage out proved to be one of relief once all the gear was at the EP. My feet thanked me as I was able to get off my wet boots that had become water logged from the portage where we floated the canoes across. It felt good to get the trailer loaded up again and head back towards Ely. Today was a warm day like the previous one, so we were all looking forward to the hot shower at Piragis and a much fresher smell in the vehicle on the way home.

Recap… This trip was another wonderful trip, despite the fishing being fair at best. The opportunity to get away from everything for a few days and just enjoy some solitude in the outdoors was great! I am looking forward to many more trips in the future to the BW and hopefully some trips with my family in years to come. As for the fishing, it seemed we brought leeches and crawlers to a minnow bite. We did not bring anything along to keep them alive for our venture out or while we stayed at camp. Next time we won’t be as foolish. We marked a lot of fish on the electronics but the fish did not seem interested. Many times we were feeding the fish line and waiting for what seemed to be an eternity, only to “floss their teeth”. Canoeing for the first time in over 15 years… The first night I could feel some soreness and stiffness from the 6 mile paddle. I was definitely glad we weren’t breaking camp every morning and heading further in. That may be something to try on a future trip with more time, especially if fishing is on the agenda each day. Portaging… It was nice that our longest portage was just under a half mile and the incline and decline was gradual. The other portages were less than 100 yards as well, which was nice. I did learn when doing the portaging that I will be packing lighter than this year, though I really had no clue how much to pack or not to pack. I also realized that we pay the price for eating well and packing heavy, as the portaging is more difficult because of it. It was a great trip and I hope everyone enjoyed the report.