We Throw Rocks at Bears
Finally the day arrives. I'm not stressed out. Everything went together too easy. Hope I didn't forget anything! We left the house at 3:30 AM to make the drive to Ely. Got to town by 8:30 and to the Ranger station just before 9 AM. No movie for us! All set to go we pass the sign reading “End Highway169, Begin Fernburg Road” We make the turn to Moose Lake and remember years ago when this was a dirt road. We park the van and take the stairs. There used to be two stairs, but it's been changed. Now there's only one. We haven't been to this EP for 10 years. We're on the water shortly after 10 AM. The wind is at our backs so we pass on the tow. Two hours later we're turning into Birch Lake away from the motors.
Another hour paddle across Birch and we're at the first portage where we see a group finishing their last carry over. We take our first load across and see a couple unloading their canoe going the other way. We head back to get our second load. As they drop their stuff we ask them about their trip. They tell us they had a bear chase them from a campsite in South Arm of Knife. He says he'll show us the site if we've got our maps. We do, back on the other side, so we finish the portage and they meet up with us again. He points to the maps showing us the campsite they were at. The site is the 'Beach' site across from the big island. Yeah, we've heard of bears being there before and we've stayed there but never had any problem. We had not planned on going that way, but it's nice to know to be on the alert if we end up in SAK later.
Now we're back in the boat and heading to the next string of portages that will take us into Knife Lake. Several other groups are heading out as we head in but we finally get to Knife Lake. We take a quick break but head out toward North Arm to find a campsite. It's 4:30 and we should be finding a campsite but the winds are so favorable for easy travel that we keep on. We know there is a storm coming Saturday so we want to find a site that we like since we'll be there for a day or two. We pass Thunder Point. The first site to the right is taken but we want to get past this bay and out to the next one.
As we get closer to the site we wanted we can see it is taken. We look for the next site. There it is, right where that nice wood strip canoe is parked. Next site is small and too protected from the wind. We decide to check out the next site around the corner on a point. If it's taken we can at least come back to this one. We're in luck, we find the campsite ten minutes later. It is up on a rock and has some space to spread out and it's ours for the next two days depending on the weather. It's 8 PM. Randy sets up the tent while I quickly heat up the Svea stove and make our dinner, Tortilla Stuffers. Very easy and quick, virtually no clean-up. Also carried premixed Margaritas in the thermos which were still ICE cold. Nice. We find a suitable tree to hang the food pack from, then head to the tent to escape the mosquitoes. No rain today.
Day 2 Saturday
We're camped on a small bay that looks out toward the 30 rod portage back to South Arm Knife. Can't quite see the portage but it's just around the corner. The site is very grassy and out in the open. At one time in the past it was a beautiful site with many pines lining the forest floor with it's needles. But it's obvious that this site was hit hard by a wind storm, most likely during the Derecho of 1999, as there are many tree trunks still lying around.
This campsite is obviously very well used. It is understandably a favorite site for any fisherman. The rocks near the water slope down steeply and disappear into the depths. We tried fishing from shore and had many little suckers or small bass follow our lures but caught nothing. We have found many things here so far; a pair of forgotten gloves, a couple fishing leaders, lots of garbage, like little pieces of torn off granola bar wrappings, etc. The last campers here were not really too concerned about LNT.
We have seen a turtle that appears to live on this rock. Saw him down near the second landing last night when we first arrived. This morning he/she was basking in the sun out on the rock point. While cooking breakfast, I heard the first 'pip' of a chipmunk! Turns out to be two of them. Later we heard some commotion from a pair of eagles down the shoreline. It was a warning noise of some sort, I guess. Never had heard them make that noise before. We thought they must have a nest nearby.
We know a storm is on it's way tonight so we spend the day relaxing and finding the best place to put up the tarp. After filtering water we decide to eat dinner a little early. It's been warm and very windy today so we are boiling the hot dogs. We gather everything under the tarp just in time as the rain begins. It's around 6 PM. It continues to come down very heavy and steady. We see the turtle up in camp oblivious to the rain going back and forth digging holes in the ground. Must be a she after all, preparing to lay her eggs.
Pretty soon we are seeing sheets of rain blowing through the channel. We hunkered down under the tarp along with the mosquitoes & gnats. Bug nets are used. It's very windy and continues to rain. Eight PM and it's still raining and the steady drumming of the rain on the tarp is making us drowsy. I'm ready to dash for the tent, so Randy hangs the food pack in the rain, getting all wet but we head to the tent. By the time we got in and settled the rain stopped, of course. We talk for awhile before falling asleep.
Day 3 Sunday
Very wet this morning. We get out of tent by 8 AM. Tried fishing from shore. Got coffee made by 10 AM. Brunch this morning, finish cleaning up by noon. We see other boats fishing, some traveling to the portage, some coming from the portage out of Amoeber Lake which is where we will be going up to as well, later.
Randy has decided we should name this site Turtle Rock since we've seen the turtle so often. I've also seen two more smaller turtles swimming along the shoreline. They stick their heads up out of the water and scope things out. They are all Wood Turtles, we believe. Also saw beavers swimming nearby. After supper tonight we're able to build a small fire. Now it feels like we're camping. After the fire dies down, it appears we're in for more rain so we prepare camp for wind and rain and go to the tent. It starts raining almost immediately and eventually we both fall asleep.
Day 4 Monday
We're finally going to move to another campsite today. We took our time getting ready, drying things out before packing up but finally by 1 PM we are ready to leave and do some fishing as we go. We paddle out into the bay where there are some reed grasses growing. Randy is hoping to lure a big bass out of the shallows. Suddenly his line goes taunt! He's got one! A northern 12 -15” It shakes itself off the hook and we continue casting. Then he caught it's twin or was it the same one again?
Now that we are away from the shore we can look back and see black clouds nearby. Then we hear rumbles of thunder. Is it going to rain again? We move on towards the channel that will take us to another bay where the portage is to Amoeber. We decide to stop and check the campsite back here for future visits. It is close to the water and has several white pines so there are needles on the ground. My favorite type of campsite. Nice tent pad. I say, “Oh, let's stay here, just for tonight!” Randy agrees since there is a storm coming. We set up the tarp first, putting everything under it, then set up the tent just as it starts raining again. A short burst as we have some isolated showers in the area. We snack on apples and summer sausage until the rain lets up. Now the sun pops out.
Randy decides to try casting from shore into the small channel nearby. First cast he gets a bite! Another northern, a bit bigger this time! He put up a good fight, but Randy reels him in. A six pounder at about 24” or so. Took pictures then released him. Now we are excited to paddle out and do some fishing. We hang the pack and go out into the pond in front of us. We troll around a bit then try casting up toward shore. Nothing. Almost giving up, I spy some reeds I want to cast up into. OK. A few casts as we drift by a submerged log and Karen gets a fish! Walleye! Good eating size - 2 ½ pounds. We try some more casts, Randy gets a couple nibbles but nothing. Now the wind has picked up and we're drifting away too fast so we finally give up and go back to camp. It's late so what do we do with our walleye 'til morning. We put it on a stringer and tie it down so it won't get away but leave it in the shallow water. We'll have it for breakfast with some potatoes. Yum.
It's about 8:30 when Randy notices something across the bay to the south east of our camp. What is that? Binoculars out...to see it is the head of a cow moose in the water chowing down water plants. We watched her for 20 minutes or so until she moved out of the water walking along the far shoreline. She went back in the water to swim across the narrow channel to the other side. She stopped to take a look at us then disappeared into the woods. Cool! It's getting dark so we head for the tent before the 'Swarm'. Skies are clear and we watch the stars come out. It's a new moon. Maybe we'll see some northern lights. No more rain that night.
Day 5 Tuesday
We wake to cloudy skies. It's late 8:30 or so. I check on the fish - ”What the...” It's gone. Stringer still looped but no fish. ?? Could something have eaten it right off the stringer? Oh, yeah! Didn't take too long before I spied the culprit! While perking some coffee, guess what I should see along the shore? Yup, a turtle! Big one. A snapper. Shell about 14” diameter. He poked his head up and looked at me. I asked him if he enjoyed his walleye dinner! Oh, well, we're not starving here. Hopefully we can catch another one or two later. We enjoy Bruegger's Pumpernickel bagels with our potatoes for breakfast.
It's been quiet here since we arrived, we haven't seen anyone else. A little after Noon we do see some folks we saw yesterday coming back to fish in this puddle. It begins to rain so we decide to let them have the bay for themselves and stay under the tarp nice & dry. Guess we don't HAVE to move today. No chipmunk's at this site, but we did see a dark colored vole run into a hole.
It's day five and we are still on Knife Lake. Mostly due to the weather conditions. Today is Tuesday and the rain moves in and stays steady most of the day. At 3 PM, I am writing in my journal and we snack on Clif bars and an apple with some summer sausage and cheese. Good no-cook supper. It keeps raining so we don't go fishing. Instead we head to the tent during a lull in the storm. We play dice game, Farkle. I lose.
We've got plenty of room in our new REI Quarter-Dome T3 Plus tent. The plus tent is 10” longer and 4” wider than the regular QDT3. We've got plenty of room for our comfy Camprest pads with space for our stuff sacks with our clothes at our feet. I put my shoes along the side near the door. We really like the screen interior for ventilation but the downside is that you can SEE all the mosquitoes that are under the rain fly. Creepy. We really like the teardrop shaped doors as they won't get dirty hanging down into the dirt. During the worst rain storms we did not get a drop of rain inside the tent. The vestibule on each side of the tent was great to just dump our boots if they were muddy. Can't see out when both sides of the vestibules are staked out and closed but we could unzip one side to let the breezes blow through.
Day 6 Wednesday
It began raining again steady (8 PM) and through the night and continued for 14 hours. We later realize that this is the storm that swamped Duluth. We stay in the tent late in the morning because it is still raining. I finally crawl out around 9:30 AM as the rain has finally let up. First thing we need to do is filter some drinking water and make some coffee.
Randy is filtering water when he sees the dark head of an animal swimming in the water coming towards our campsite. He's thinking it's the moose again but no, the shape is different. Suddenly, he says, “That's a BEAR!” He jumps up running for the shoreline while I grab the camera! Randy throws rocks at the bear yelling as well. The bear is still in the water but he moves away from the campsite and gets out on the shore away from our camp. He took a moment to stare at us and must have decided we were too much trouble to bother with so it walked off into the forest. I think it stood about 3 feet high at the shoulder, a pretty good size bear. Did not see it again. We had planned on leaving this site today so now we're a bit more motivated.
After a hot meal we start packing up which takes us a couple hours so it is 3:30 before we leave our site to do the 75 rod portage up to Amoeber, hoping to find a campsite. If not we'll move up to Topaz and Cherry. The portage goes up right away but not too steep. However the path is like a small stream running down the rocks of the portage. Very wet and muddy. Good thing I brought my rubber boots!
We get to Amoeber and yes, there is someone camped on the island campsite and they are out fishing. We check out the only other site on this lake. It has a great spot for pulling up the canoe but it's rocky near the shore. We step out and secure the boat to check it out. There's a tent pad which is very rocky and another too close to the fire grate. The walk to the latrine is...well, no problem if you're a mountain goat. When I found it, it was filled with water from all the rain. Nasty! Not good!
We decide to move on to the next lake. It's only 15 rods. We paddle Topaz where Randy has camped before with a buddy. It's the only site on this lake. Taken. Saw two canoes, a main tarp, two small tents and two tarps with hammocks. Not sure how many people were there though. Another five rod portage to Cherry and we want a campsite. There's two here but if they are full we may have no choice but to take another 110 rod portage to Hansen. Find the first one taken by a group of four canoes. Oh Boy! Now we're getting worried. If that site was taken then the other one is, too. It's after 6 PM. Are we going to have to make that portage and take the site at the end of the portage? Crap!
We keep paddling until we finally get to the narrows in the middle of Cherry. Hallelujah! There's the site and no one's home! Now we've got smiles on our faces! The fire grate's right near the shoreline. We can see the waterline marks are below the surface. Water levels are definitely up! We find two GREAT tent pad spots and make camp. Cherry is a beauty. There are several palisades here. We see a snapping turtle and three loons.
Day 7 Thursday
No rain all night, we slept good. In the morning we find slugs all over our tent. The ground is so saturated from all the rain these things are crawling all over the place. Found several on my shoes which I had left in the vestibule over night. Later I discovered one had gotten inside my shoe. Squished it. I had orange slug slime on my sock.
We see two canoes coming from the portage to Hansen, heading west through Cherry. We had a few small rain showers delay our packing but we finally get under way. We took our time paddling to the portage admiring some of the palisades. Takes us an hour to do this 110 rod portage which goes up and up, curving up, then out into a clearing as we top the summit, then down wet & slippery rocks as we walk through a small river running down the path, mud puddles, etc. We see no one else on the portage and we stopped to walk a few yards over to the campsite to check it out. It was usable but doesn't look like it's used much.
Back on the water we can see a group camped on the far shore. We decide to head towards Ester. We stop to look at a campsite in the NE part of the lake. Looks like someone just left here, like a few hours ago. They dropped a wooden clothes pin. An OK site but we decide to paddle into Ester to checkout the four sites grouped together there. We see one campsite on the south end of an island that is occupied but it looks like the Premo spot on this lake. There's another site directly across the water from that site that is open. We paddle to the other end of the island and hear people at another site on the end of the peninsula. The site on the north end of the island is available so we set up camp. Has a great view of another rocky bluff. It's a little muddy here but that's to be expected. We finally have our Beef Stroganoff and small bottles of wine I found sold in plastic bottles. Made a fire. In tent by 10:30. No rain. A good day but Karen is tired and crabby and sick of bugs.
Day 8 Friday
Today we manage to drag our butts out of the tent at 8:30. Make breakfast and start packing up. We are planning to get to South Arm of Knife with just one portage to do. Packed and ready to leave by Noon. Wow. That's good for us. We trolled Ester until we got to the narrows. Did some casting but no bites. On to Hansen. Winds are light & variable. Make good time across Hansen and to the portage.
Can't see the portage until you are right on top of it, right to the end of the lake where the water runs down the creek. We land on a cedar tree, water levels are very high here. It's too deep to step out in the water so it was tricky. Got everything out of the boat then we both had to take the canoe on either end to carry it up to the portage. We wanted to see this portage since reading a trip report by Tuscarora Borealis who said it was like walking through an Enchanted Forest. Very accurate description! It was an easy 120 rods. According to our maps, there's a difference of 64 ft in elevation from Hansen. It's a gradual climb or descent with a nice sandy landing in South Arm. The falls halfway down the path was roaring! Great place to stop for a break. So worth the trip.
Never been in this far back into South Arm. It's a great looking bay of the lake. We stop at one of the campsites where there are two close together. One site was taken, so we checked out the one more to the west. Small site, good for a couple or a solo. Lots of red pines here. We checkout another site but move on as the wind is again light and good for traveling. We head off paddling north of the big island. See a hiking path that leads to a small palisades with a view of South Arm. Never knew it was there. We had to paddle in this direction to see it. Cool. I've claimed it as Karen's Cliff. Have to come back to hike up there.
Hoping to get one of the two campsites here but they are both taken. One by a LOUD group of all women. Another site nearby was too close so we went on traveling along the shoreline that leads to Thunder Point. Checked out the campsites we could find but didn't stay. Finally we get to Thunder Point thinking we'll stay around here. Some sites are taken but we finally decide to take the open one just west of the Bonnie Lake portage. We are still unloading the canoe when a bear walks right into our camp and sniffs our camp chairs. SERIOUSLY?
I head towards the bear yelling at it. "Git out of here" It disappeared into the woods. Randy grabbed a rock and walked up into camp and off where the bear went. There he was just sitting there waiting for us to give up the chase. He yelled at the bear again throwing rocks at it. So now we think well, he'll most likely just harass us all night. We pack up and leave.
The winds are at our backs so let's just go and see if we can get a spot on Robbins Island. We move on and check all the sites in the west end of Knife lake. They are all taken. By the time we discover this, it is 9 PM and the sun is setting. What are we going to do now? We did appeal to one group, sort of. Spoke to them telling them we were looking for a site but they were all full. They didn't offer to share their campsite with us. They were a group of 6 with three tents and we already knew it wasn't a wonderful site anyway.
No one else seemed to notice us or our dilemma. We know that the swarm will be out in full force by 9:30 so we manage to find a flat spot on shore where we can put up the tent and sleep. At least a bear won't come by where there is no designated campsite. Right? Well, it sounds good. I filter some water so we can have drinking water then we go to the tent, swatting any mosquitoes that got in. Damn. That one had blood in it already. I sleep but Randy stays awake worried about not being in a designated campsite.
Day 9 Saturday
I sleep until 6 AM but get up and start getting ready to pack up. Randy's right behind me. By 7 AM we are repacked with a wet tent and on the water. We leave no trace except for a few footprints. We paddle back over to the Isle of Pines and check out Dorothy Molter's island. By 8 AM we see a group heading for the portages back to Carp Lake. There were at the eastern end of Robbins Island. Shortly after the group camped at this end of Robbins Island are leaving their site going out towards Vera. We stop by the campsite to grab a bite to eat and use the latrine. We have stayed here before. It has four GOOD spots for tents. They were only using two of them. We may have had some luck if we had asked them about sharing their site. Don't know. But we survived.
Our plans were to head back to Birch Lake today and spend one more night in the BWCA. We start the portages back to Carp Lake. We make our second trip over the first one before we see another boat. Three people politely waiting on the water until we got underway. But...they are sitting right in the way where we want to load the canoe so we tell them nicely to go ahead. They are three people single portaging so it makes sense. They are the first to tell us about the flooding of Duluth and Moose Lake. What...? We're somewhat stunned by the news. We've always wondered near the end of our trips what we've missed in the world. This one is close to home.
We're off to the next portage but we're going to skip this one. Water levels are high enough we should be able to run the rapids! I'm feeling a little nervous, but once we go over the first dip, I want more! Whoo hoo! That's the fastest this boat's gone all week! Now's there's another dip and we're heading straight for a rock! Karen -“No,no,no,no,no!” Randy...? We just keep going, didn't hit the rock, there's so much water! It was fun! Darn it though, there's no one on the portage to see us take the easy way!
The next portage is jammed full with 4 canoes with Boy Scouts everywhere! There is a secondary landing so we take it. It's shorter but today it's flooded so we have to walk back to where there are now TWO groups of four canoes. Another group has pushed their way into the Boy Scouts and are forced to wait while the scout leaders shout out instructions. Make it to the end (thankfully short) and here comes another group of Scouts!
We get out of there ASAP. It's just across the puddle of Melon Lake so we see two guys in a Mad River Canoe just finishing their portage as we land. They are loading their cooler into the canoe. We end up talking to them for several minutes. They are from Duluth! They tell us about roads that are washed out even a closure of Hwy 61 making travel to the Gunflint Trail a challenge. Whoa! Nice guys, feel like I could have stayed and talked more. Felt like we would have been comfortable camping together. But we had to move on and here came another group that these two guys are trying to get ahead of to get a campsite. Good luck!
We make it to the end of the Knife Lake portages and we're actually alone. On to Carp Portage. We pass four canoes out on the water, all heading out. One group of three and a couple. Greetings are exchanged. They are excited to be getting in and we are bummed that our trip is coming to an end.
We make our first trip and run into a group of 5 girls and one guy with two boats. They're trying to single portage too much stuff. The three sherpas were trying to carry front packs and backpacks. They were young and they tried. We offered to help carry but they were like, "Oh no, we're good." We passed them when one had to put her pack down because she couldn't see where she was walking!
When we get back to the other side, here comes four canoes just plowing right through like they are in some big hurry that they can't wait for two boats to get out of their way. I grabbed my pack and Dry bag and practically RUN for the other side. We load the boat as we watch another Boy Scout troop coming in. They do have the decency to wait until the portage clears before landing.
We're off! Now of course the powers that be have spotted the Hawbakers and are so glad to see us back at Birch Lake that they arrange to have the wind pick up and toss up some white caps just for us! Yeah! We've been in worse but it just sucks that we have the wind in our faces. However it is a good thing as it blows away the heat and the bugs. But we're just planning on paddling out to find a campsite, cook some more food then head out in the morning with an easy paddle back to Moose. That was the plan but somehow things started to change.
We watch the other traffic on the lake head off for Indian Portage to meet up with their tows. We travel to the north side and paddle through what I call the tree graveyard. An area where the lake was flooded long ago and there are still tree logs sticking out of the water. We saw a family of Otters swimming there. Neat. Finally get to a camp site we noticed on our way in that we are thinking of taking if it's nice. It has looked nice all the way across the lake : )
When we stop we are now out of the wind (not good) which means we'll be bugged out here. Tent pad looks all right only one possible spot. Randy has come back from checking the latrine. There is a swampy area rather close by. We are getting bugged already by mosquitoes when we notice a stench coming from the swamp. Uh, I've changed my mind, let's not stay here. Now we're heading out to the last channel to Sucker and back into motor boat territory. We see an eagle. The winds are dying down.
At this point we may as well just head back to the landing. We're tired of the bugs and wood ticks and trying to find the perfect campsite. So we decide we'll stay the night in Ely, and drive back tomorrow. We finally make it back to Moose Lake and get to the van. Randy thinks the lights are dim when he starts the van but it looks like everything's good. So now we're driving back out going about 25 -30 miles an hour – not used to going so fast! So our adventure ends here...or so we thought. However fate has more in store for us.
Randy tries to talk me into just heading home. We could be back in our own beds by 11 PM. I am not pleased. I was looking forward to a relaxing evening after a shower and a hamburger! Besides I am worried that he hasn't had enough sleep so we should stay. Well I did convince him to stay so we got a room at The Paddle Inn. Heard more about the road closures and the flood from the lady there. Very nice! After showers and clean clothes we are going out to eat.
Wanted to check out the Ely Steakhouse, but it's their Saturday night all-you- can-eat Prime Rib special and the waiting line is out on the street! So we finally decide on the Boathouse Pub & Brewery. Wonderful! Had some of their own brewery beer! Fantastic! They offered to give us a tour of the brewery but we were pretty exhausted and declined. Regret that. Have to do it again next time. Drove back to hotel and watched some local news hoping to catch some details about the flood. It was warm but we slept.
Sunday, June 24th
Next morning we have decided to take 169 out of town hoping to avoid any issues with road closures. If that was all we had to worry about. As we are passing the very last house out of town, Randy notices the battery light on the dashboard! All the gauges are not working. Quickly turn around and find a service station. Turn off the engine and can't start it again. Looks like we've got a dead battery meaning the alternator has failed! The young man there says they don't really do any service anymore but he can charge our battery for five bucks.
OK, well, we happen to be right across the street from Piragis Northwoods. So we spend some time and money browsing their store. I bought a book about Dorothy Molter from their bookstore. Cool place. Right next door to that is a restaurant called, A Taste of Ely. Used to be a butcher shop, I think they said. So we have breakfast there. Very nice.
The van has now been charged up and the owner of service station tells Randy that we might make Cloquet on a fully charged battery if we don't use extra power like the radio or the A/C. Don't really need it today. So off we go hoping to make it to Virginia, about 50 miles away. As we pass through Tower/Soudan, 21 miles from Ely, we spot a service station and body shop. We're almost out of town when all the gauges stop again. Turn around and get to the service station. We get another charge and some more help from the shop owner, Bob. Didn't charge us anything and told us about a parts store in Virginia where we might get an alternator, and it's right next door to a car dealer that does service. But they're closed today. There's also an American Inn there if we need to stay the night. Oh, joy!
We thank him for his help and head for Virginia. We barely make it. Five miles before the exit we lose the gauges again. Randy manages to keep it going until we get into the parking lot of the dealership. Barely enough power to roll up the windows(in case we have to leave it overnight.) Randy heads to the parts store right around the corner. The guy there knows of a service station that is open since they do towing for the State Patrol. Randy calls the guy and he says he can have someone over to us in half an hour. 20 minutes he is there and gets us enough power in the battery to drive the 5 blocks to their station. Two hours later we have a new alternator installed and we're we're ready to go! Whew! Some very nice folks in Virginia!
So we made it home safe and sound but with a few dollars less in our pockets. Now we're thinking we may retire up here in Virginia since the folk are so nice! Until next time!