BWCA to Lake Superior via Grand Portage
It rained just about the entire trip. We put in on Wednesday, 23 May - and on Thursday received 4 inches of rain! Trail conditions were probably about as wet as they could be, but were still definitely passable.
We left Duluth about 05:30 and drove to Grand Portage and deposited a vehicle in the overflow parking by the National Monument before driving the boats/gear up the Arrowhead Trail to the John Lake entry. We obtained a car parking permit and an overnight camping permit for Fort Charlotte (at the BW side of the Grand Portage) free of charge (requested by email and sent through the mail) from the ranger at Grand Portage National Monument a couple of weeks prior to the trip.
Put in on John Lake - in hindsight, we didn't need a BWCA permit, as we were within the actual BW less than a full day (South Fowl Lake is outside of the BW). But had there been a stiff north wind, we would likely have camped on John. The paddle from John Lake to South Fowl is fairly easy. The two portages that bookend the Royal river are of standard difficulty for their length, and were well-maintained.
South Fowl Lake is big water! We camped on the island campsite in the middle, on what was a peninsula during voyageur days before the Pigeon was dammed where it exits South Fowl Lake. It was a nice site, but was similar to other sites I'd encountered on lakes open to motorboat traffic - a damaged fire grate area (had been ripped out of the ground) and all sorts of trash everywhere, both new and old. We fixed and re-rocked the grate but there was no way we could carry out all of the glass/empty 1.75s of Ron Diaz and the like. There were remnants of a cabin on the interior of the island, as well as the remains of an old wooden boat and some moose bones. There are a few cabins on this lake (on both the US and Canadian sides) but it retains a pretty wild feel. That afternoon we checked out the Fowl portage and found that if one takes a left at the Y shortly into the portage (a right will lead you down the trail itself), they will find themself on top of the great precipice overlooking South Fowl - sharing the same view that some voyageurs took time to describe back around 1800. The portage (very easy to find) is in a bay to the left of a stone/mortar dam build by the CCC and has a great sandy landing. Some of the builders took time to add their names to their handiwork, and the likes of "Art Nelson October 1934" can be seen in the dam's concrete work.
The next morning we took the Fowl portage, notable for a slippery first ~50 rods (loose, wet rock) and 50+ blown-down tree trunks to step over - but few tree tops to really get in the way. The portage trail bottom was generally solid despite the recent rain. We then paddled down the Pigeon River - passing through some shallow, gravelly rapids prior to the site of the English Portage, and then through some deeper, faster rapids that the English Portage would have bypassed back in voyageur days. We didn't see any sign of this portage, and a National Park ranger we met in Grand Portage (who had taken the same trip the week before) said that his group looked for evidence of this portage at that time but could find none. So onward we went, passing through some pretty wild country. The Partridge Falls portage is NOT marked on the McKenzie map (a pretty glaring omission) and is found in a grassy area by an old cabin just before the river jinks to the left after a significant straight stretch - keep an eye on your topography from your map, and you won't have any trouble finding it. One will climb up the shore and onto a logging road - keep hugging the river on the logging road. The first trail to the left will bring you to the falls themselves (which would make a GREAT place to spend the night - a much nicer area than Fort Charlotte) and the second offshoot to the left will bring you back to the Pigeon. The falls were thundering mightily with all of the recent rain! We paddled further toward Fort Charlotte, and saw a cow moose with two apparently newborn moose calves come crashing out of the brush. In short order we found ourselves at Fort Charlotte (there is a dock of sorts (the first landing after a small storage shed +/- boats is seen on the right) and the camping sites (large, with raised wooden tent pads and abundant nearby firewood supply) are to your left, with the Grand Portage itself to the right. Since we arrived at Fort Charlotte early in the afternoon, we decided to carry the canoes a couple of miles ahead on the Grand Portage to expedite things the following morning. At the same moment that I picked up my aluminum boat, there was a simultaneous flash and ear-splitting boom - lightning (which there was little of earlier during the day) struck RIGHT across the Pigeon River, perhaps 100 yards away. I dropped the boat and took cover. Thinking that my boat was perhaps the only decent-sized metallic object in an 8-mile radius, we left it at the portage head and carried the other boat a few miles down the portage, leaving the aluminum boat for the morning.
After a night of rain and thunder/lightning, we tackled the Grand Portage itself. The trail was pretty wet (with ~6 inches of rain in the previous two days, this was not unexpected) but generally had a solid bottom. Swampy areas had either wooden bridges or plank crossings, and we made really quite good time. It took just under four hours from the start of the portage to Lake Superior (something like 8.5 miles, or 2720 rods) - and that included a ~20 minute lunch break at old highway 61, as well as a canoe breakdown where one of the bolts holding the yoke in place sheared off and was successfully lashed in place instead. Our crew consisted of four people, two canoes (Alumacraft Voyager and a Bell Northwind BlackGold), and three Duluth packs. We stopped every 1.5 miles or so and switched loads, sipped some water, and the like.
In Grand Portage we took our canoes onto the big lake for a few minutes, and were able to enjoy the reconstructed buildings at the Grand Portage National Monument itself before heading back to Duluth (home).
I would do this trip again, most definitely - maybe in ten years or so. I was expecting to be totally exhausted at the end of the portage, but had more "gas in the tank" at the end than I imagined I would. I would recommend this trip to any group of average to above average endurance with a decent amount of prior BW experience!