Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Isabella Burn-Out Area and Plane Trip
by greybeard

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 04/19/2012
Entry & Exit Point: Isabella Lake (EP 35)
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
The trip was to view the Pigami Creek burn area, as well as to do a fly-over to view the BWCA and bits of Quetico
Isabella Burn-Out BWCA and Airplane Trip 2012 Al Freeland (greybeard) 4/19/12

I had quite a surprise when I was loading the canoe for our trip to Isabella, and found out the canoe did not have the 2012 license! Panicked! I did NOT want to pay a fine so I call the DNR, no help – their site not working. Finally went to the Northfield DMV and they had ONE license left! Yea! I slapped on my Souris River 18.5, put it on the Jeep and loaded up my pre-packed Duluth packs (always packed and clear – ready for the next trip. My camping buddy Harlow stopped by, loaded up and finally left Northfield about 6pm. We intended to enter into the Pigami Creek burn area to see the damage, and scout out the area for a Fall trip with my son Andy and his three boys. We also decided we wanted to try something that neither of us had done before – take a fly-over trip over the BWCA and Quetico to see the land I have been paddling for 25 years.

As we were driving up, the darned canoe started to wiggle and the straps vibrating wildly. The Spring Creek hook straps (bolt under the hood, coming out from each side of the hood) pulled from the sides and started the straps vibrating. I stop at Gander Mt. and they had ZERO canoe straps. Next stopped Fleet Farm and picked up a long strap for a front pull over the bumper and to frame. Worked great! I really need to get some metal loops welded on the front frame for a quick disconnect. We talked about old-times all the way as we drove up to Ely (about a 6 hour drive) and arrived at the Super 8 in Ely about 11:30 pm.

4/20/12 Woke up about 7:30 knowing we had an appointment for a 10 pm flight. I called to see if we could go a little earlier (earlier the better for a calmer atmosphere). I made an appointment for 9pm – so we chowed on the free continental breakfast. The Super 8 is a nice place to stay for $59.95. After breakfast I start packing up and met a guy in the parking lot with a canoe in tow. We started talking and it ended up that he was “rookieno3” on BWCA.COM which I knew. He told me about Canoecopia that he attends in Wisconsin every year. It is a wild event for just canoeist. a must see. Also there is an event called Wingnight at Lake Rebecca, MN – BWCA.COM guys gathering. I love the canoe brotherhood out there.

Drove on the Vanair on Bear Head State Park road (turn rights on Walsh Rd, and right at the little red rock in 1/10th mile (218-365-2331), Bud and Irene Van Deusen ( ). They moved here from New York about 16 years ago (flew out there for 3 years). They were a fine Christian couple who owns 2 planes. The one we used was a 1973 Cessna 180, flathead 6 cylinder motor, single prop, pontoon floatplane. We took off at about 9:30 am – what a thrill. Not once was I apprehensive, it was just the best experience ever. Finally get to see the area I have paddled for 25+ years. We were out in heaven about 1 ¼ hours, flew 120 miles, used ¼-1/2 tank of gas. I actually got to fly the plane for a short jaunt. It was super sensitive to the turn of the wheel – I had no idea what a wonderful experience that would be. He told the story of a guy with long legs who bumped the wheel and flipped the plan on its top in the water (probably a story to make SURE that I was very careful)!! He went on to tell the story of his moose hunting expedition with a buddy of his – 1100 pound moose, with about 350 pound cleaned pure meat. The trip took us in a large counter-clockwise loop around the BWCA. It left the Eagle Nest chain of Lakes with Ely to our left, then on to Snowbank and over through full strip of Pagami Creek burn – down to Isabella where we were going to camp that night. On up to Kek, Gish, Sag, and then banked left to Basswood, to Lac La Croix, swooped down on Curtain Falls and Warrior Hill, then down to US Agnes, to Vermillion and back to his base.

We left Bud and Irene’s (after she gave us a bag of fresh baked cookies – yum!) and drove to Ely and got groceries at Zups. We went to the US Forest Service Station for info and found out that the Island River entry by Isabella was closed. There were two legal sites on Isabella, so we got updated on the burn and left for the adventure. The burn covered 100,000 acres – largest burn since 1918. It started at Pagami Creek, and ended up burning the entire North and West boarder of Isabella. We drove down hwy 1, and took a left on Forrest Road Tomahawk – dead ends into Isabella (lake not the town).

When we got to Island River it hit us – oh my – it was like a nightmare scene. Black charred stumps and trees, ground burned off duff to the rock. Of course it will rebound, and in a way needed – it just looked so sad. The scene made it clear that I would not be taking my son and grandkids to Island River this Fall, it will be open, but will be all charred ash – no place for the kids to place without being a MESS. A day trip would be fine if we were on Isabella.

Harlow and I parked in the car park on Isabella and started on the easy 50+ rod portage – walking through the burnt out moonscape. I was carrying the 18’5” Souris River with a bunch of other items including the filled minnow bucket. The bucket slipped and canoe flipped to my knee and hit a burnt out jack pine – with a razor sharp spear point branch stub. WHAM right through the canoe at water line. Wait a minute – I thought Kevlar was puncture proof – how about police bullet proof vests?? Oh well - a couple pieces of duct tape, and it lasted for 3 days in the water.

Started paddling the loaded canoe across Isabella and took the first site on the south central part of the lake – a real 4 star I would say. It had a great tent pad site, great firewood supply, a good landing on the north part of the site, great area for tarp, and a log seat all ready to BS around the fire late at night. We set up camp, grabbed a meal of pork loin steaks and a little box wine to pair with the meat, and went out fishing for a bit. We were hoping for some crappies that we were told were there and legal at this time of the year. The wind was blowing pretty ferociously, so we hugged the shore and gave up for the night. I made a mental note that the lake is about 15 foot deep max, with GREAT structure for the eyes later in the year.

We had a cheery fire burning, with good conversation – and were ready to load up all the food into the bear barrel for the night. We were told that there is so little foraging in the burn area, that there is little worry about bear. I had my -30 bag, dry closes, and sleeping pad so I was a comfortable as can be – slept till about 9am! Harlow had to wake ME up, which never happened on a camp trip in my life.

4/21/12 We got up and stocked up the firewood. We cooked up ½ dozen eggs and ½ bag of raisin English muffins with boutique honey – yum! We soon were out on the lake exploring the peninsula that we were on, and looked for the best fishing structure on the map. It was clear to see the north and west burn out area, with the south being pretty green. I remembered this view from the air the day before – the perspective sure changes from up high and down low. This realization alone was a philosophic memory that I will keep forever. I made a sea anchor and we set out about 11:00 am. We stayed out for a couple of hours and the wind picked up considerably – with heavy cloud over cover. We ended up catching a couple nice walleyes, but released them of course since it was spawn. I can attest for spawn, since when I pulled in one obvious male walleye – he deposited sperm all over the canoe while I was unhooking him. Never had that happen before. I felt bad about that, but couldn’t help it. It did hit me that I had never been up canoeing this early before. I have camped plenty of times in spring, summer, fall and winter, but not this early in the spring. I later caught a 3lb. white sucker. I wasn’t sure what it was until I was told its identity later when I posted the picture on BWCA.COM site. I turned on my pocket radio to catch the weather. WELY FM just said that the forecast was snow later afternoon, and rain, with continued rain. At that second the snow and wind really started getting with it! We could hardly see across the bay where we had to head to go home.

Sadly, we broke camp in a record 20 minutes, and by 4:30 pm we ended up back at the portage with some beautiful snow covered Christmas trees, and a fantastic surrealistic burnt black landscape spotted with white snow. We loaded the Jeep and headed home. We went south on one and headed towards hwy 61. My GPS took us to hwy 2 that took us to Two Harbors and saved a lot of time on the trip home. As we got to Duluth it started raining like cats and dogs. Driving home gave us time to think about the short sweet trip – didn’t miss anything we wanted to do – a dream trip over the BWCA in a plane, got to fly the plane, fish, camping in the burn out, and a safe trip back home.